All-too-familiar foe waiting for U.S. World Cup team

The last time 20,000 Americans descended on this northeastern Brazilian beach town was 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt sent U.S. troops here to be stationed at Parnamirim Air Base during World War II. Natal is the eastern-most point of Brazil’s bulging coastline and the closest spot in the Americas to Africa, so it made for a strategic spot.

Roosevelt nicknamed Natal “The Trampoline to Victory” because it played a key role in keeping allied troops in Africa and southern Europe supplied as planes shuttled back and forth. At its peak in 1944, flights took off and landed every three minutes from Parnamirm’s two airstrips. The town became so Americanized that locals were introduced to popular U.S. music, slang terms, and one of the beaches was dubbed “Miami Beach.”

On Monday night, another batch of Americans in uniform — the U.S. World Cup team and its estimated 20,000 star-spangled followers — will be in town for their opening match against nemesis Ghana, which has knocked Team USA out of the past two World Cups. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann hopes the game at Arena Das Dunas (Arena of Dunes, named for the town’s sand dunes) will provide a trampoline to victory in a Group of Death that also includes Portugal and Germany.

Klinsmann said he doesn’t think of the matchup as a “revenge” game. Only five U.S. players on this team played in the 2-1 Round of 16 overtime loss to Ghana in South Africa — Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard. The 2006 score was also 2-1, and that loss was in the group stage.

“If the guys that were there four years ago get extra kick and energy out of that, it’s OK with me,” Klinsmann said Sunday, before the team’s final training session. “But this is a new World Cup, and it’s a clean sheet. It will be a very challenging game, but we’re very confident. This is the biggest stage, and there’s nothing better than playing against the team that beat you twice in the World Cup. We’re full of energy, everybody stayed healthy, and we’re ready to get it started.”

Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan, who scored the game-winner against the United States in South Africa, said Sunday that his team might have more talented players top to bottom, but American players could have a mental edge.

“There are a few things that make this game very, very difficult for us,” said Gyan, who missed a critical penalty kick in the last minute of extra time in the 2010 quarterfinal against Uruguay. “We are a very different team, different coach, different tactics from 2010. And the U.S. is coming in for revenge. Mentally, they don’t want us to beat them a third time, and that will make it difficult for us.”

Ghana is loaded with talented players, such as Gyan, Michael Essien, who plays for Milan in Italy, and Kevin Prince-Boateng of German club FC Schalke. But it is the youngest team in the tournament, with an average age of 25.44 years.

Howard, the veteran U.S. goalkeeper, calls the 2006 and 2010 losses to Ghana “ancient history” and says “not a word’s been spoken” among the players about a revenge factor.

He is expecting another strong Ghana team with pace, physicality and skilled players who can make big plays on the counterattack.

“They are strong individually,” he said. “Obviously, we know how physical they are, so we are going to try to match that. I’ve said it before, but very rarely do we get outmatched physically, but this is a team that has the possibility of doing that, so we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen and then just be kind of clever with our positioning and making sure that they don’t hit us in transition.”

Asked what, specifically, he remembers about the 2010 match, Howard replied: “That we lost. We felt like it was a game we could win. I want back a lot of things in life, but I can’t get them.”

Bradley said he has vivid memories of the match.

“I remember quite a bit,” he said. “It was a game where, obviously, we found ourselves down early, but the response was good and for the majority of that game we were the ones in control and pushing things and looking to get back to 1-1, and then once we get back to 1-1, we were still pushing for a win. It’s a team that can cause you trouble, especially in the attacking half.”

Klinsmann has been tinkering with the starting lineup, and nothing is certain until game time, but most of the positions seem pretty much set. Howard will start in goal, Altidore will play striker, Dempsey and Bradley will play as attacking midfielders, Jermaine Jones will play midfield, Fabian Johnson will play right back, and workhorse Kyle Beckerman will likely play deep in the midfield as a safety net. The center backs are expected to be Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler. Beasley could play left back, and Alejandro Bedoya of Weston could get the call as an outside midfielder.

“I think twice there was a 50-50 situation with Ghana, and [the] U.S. was on the negative end of it,” Klinsmann said. “But it is our job to turn this around and get those three points.”

Although Natal is known as “The City of Sunshine,” there was torrential rain Friday and Saturday, and some rain is forecast for Monday. Klinsmann said weather is a nonfactor.

“If it’s raining, snowing, thundering and lightning, these are football players, and they play whether it is wet, dry, hot, humid,” he said. “We’re not worried about that stuff at all. We’re excited and energized.”