NATAL, Brazil -- The interminable wait for Monday's World Cup opener against Ghana is almost over for the U.S. men's national team.
From the moment the World Cup draw was announced in December, the Americans have thought of little else but their match against the Black Stars at the Estadio das Dunas. All involved insist the match is a must-win, be it U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann, Ghanaian counterpart Akwasi Appiah or numerous players on both sides.
Given that Portugal and Germany round out the Group G participants, it's hard to see how either of these teams could advance after losing its first game. The group stage can often resemble a ride on Disneyland's Tower of Terror, with surges of momentum changing the group's dynamic after each match.
But beyond scouting, practicing and preparing, the U.S. just wants to play the game. The team has been in training camp for more than a month. While friendly victories against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria have helped break the monotony, the excitement of getting their World Cup adventure underway has been building to the point of boiling over.
"This is just an awesome moment because this is the biggest stage you can have. We're full of energy," Klinsmann said at Sunday's news conference. "We all want to do well, and [the players] have done a tremendous job over the last four weeks. Everybody stayed healthy and everybody is just ready to get going."
It's a match that seems notoriously difficult to handicap. The U.S. gained plenty of confidence from the win against Nigeria on June 7. The hybrid 4-4-2 trotted out by Klinsmann is appealing because it seemed to play to the U.S. team's strengths, while shielding its weaknesses.
Jermaine Jones looks freer to get forward now that Kyle Beckerman is sitting behind him. Michael Bradley is also able to push deeper into the attack and provide the kind of dead-eye passes that led to Jozy Altidore's second against Nigeria.
And the compact shape displayed seems perfectly suited to protect a back line that is short of World Cup experience. Granted, the usual warnings of not reading too much into pre-World Cup results has been sounded again and again.
"Playing in a World Cup is so different to any friendly, to any warm-up game," Bradley said. "The confidence that we build playing in those three games, the relationships that continue to grow, those are all positive things. Now it's all about stepping on the field in a World Cup playing against Ghana, and so our main focus is on what's going on there, not on what happened a few weeks ago."
To that end, Ghana presents an immense challenge, one that goes beyond the World Cup hoodoo over the U.S. Its midfield is stacked with talented players, even if Kwadwo Asamoah slides to left-back as he did in the pre-World Cup win over the Korea Republic. Andre Ayew, Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien, Kevin Prince-Boateng and Mohammed Rabiu are all capable of changing a game on their own and the U.S. will need to be mindful of the Black Stars' collective ability while also testing Ghana's defense.
Having an in-form striker helps, and while Altidore's two goals against Nigeria shouldn't be mistaken for a hot streak, he's a threat that Ghana will have to respect. The same is true for the marauding runs of Fabian Johnson, though he'll need to find more consistency in his passes in the defensive and middle thirds of the field. And of course, Bradley and Clint Dempsey will do their bit to threaten as well.
But that is all pregame prognostication. It's time for the U.S. to perform in front of an expectant fan base both in Natal and back home. Bradley is confident the Americans will deliver.
"The beauty of the game is still that with all that gets talked about beforehand, it's still up to us when we step on the field tomorrow to give everything, to enjoy the moment, to relish the opportunity to play in a World Cup and represent ourselves and our country," Bradley said. "As the game continues to grow, so do the expectations and the focus. I think we all welcome that. We welcome the pressure of playing in a World Cup. We know it won't be easy, but certainly we feel that when we step on the field and are sharp and are able to play to the best of our ability that we can have a really good World Cup."
The latest chapter in that journey begins Monday.
Some U.S. fans share Bradley's excitement and optimism. A Sunday morning flight from Fortaleza into Natal was replete with U.S. supporters -- upwards of 20,000 of whom are expected to be on hand for the game. Among them was Ian King, 25, who originally hails from Auburn, Illinois, but currently resides in Piedras Negras, Mexico, where he's working on the construction of a brewery. King attended the Italy-England game in Manaus on Saturday, but is relishing the chance to see the U.S. face its World Cup nemesis, one that has knocked it out of the past two tournaments.
Said King: "With Ghana the buildup has been like eight years, right? This feels like the time to finally get some payback.
"I've never been to a World Cup before, and going to the Italy-England game was cool, but I could care less about those teams. Going to see the U.S. here in Brazil is going to be freaking amazing."
Brian Chase, a 30-year-old engineer from Seattle, is attending his third World Cup, but still feels he has some unfinished business.
"I want to see a U.S. win," he said while sporting a Clint Dempsey U.S. replica jersey. "I think now's the time. I went to the first two U.S. games in South Africa, but missed out on Algeria. Third time is the charm against Ghana, and third time is the charm for my World Cup."