NATAL, Brazil (USATODAY.com) – With an easy laugh and ample charm, Ghana's Asamoah Gyan doesn't look the part of the villain. Nor do his teammates, who like to break into the azonto, a hip swiveling dance after goals. They have been to the World Cup only twice before, and both times entered as heavy underdogs. So why is this fun-loving bunch considered the USA's great nemesis?
"They're coming for revenge," Gyan said heading into Monday's World Cup opener for both teams. "Mentally they don't want us to beat them for a third time, which will make it interesting and difficult for us."
Four years ago, Gyan's game-winning goal in overtime knocked the Americans out of the World Cup. In 2006, Ghana sent the USA home in group play.
"I don't think it's revenge," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Sunday. "Maybe for the players four years ago if they want to get some extra kick and energy out of that, that's alright by me."
Winning the tournament is unrealistic, as Klinsmann had said. But on Sunday, much of the talk was about the team's confidence. "You want to go far. That's definitely the goal. I booked my flight for after the final," Klinsmann said.
The Americans are approaching the Ghana match as if it's a World Cup final, Klinsmann said, because it means that much. Especially since games against powerhouses Portugal and Germany follow.
The numbers support that must-win mentality. Since the 1998 World Cup, when the field expanded to 32 with two teams per group advancing, only 9% of teams that lost their first World Cup game (4 of 46) advanced to the knockout stage. A tie, which gives a team one point, in the first game gives a team hope — 56 % of those teams (20 of 36) advanced from their group.
Midfielder Michael Bradley said the Americans are embracing the pressure. "As the game continues to grow in the country so do the expectations," Bradley said. "We all welcome the pressure of playing in a World Cup. We know it won't be easy, but we that feel like if we step on the field and are sharp and able to play to the best of our ability, we can have a great World Cup."
Ghana's strength is big-name stars, such as Gyan, Sulley Muntari, Michael Essien, Kevin-Prince Boateng, and physical, fast play. Four years ago, the Black Stars counter attacked and muscled the Americans off the ball.
Gyan was asked if the Americans were athletic and hard-working and the Ghanaians more talented. "I think so," he said. "Ghana is the most talented team, with young talented players coming up." He noted Ghana's youth – with an average of 25 years, 6 months, the youngest in the tournament – then called the Americans a "good side, a very dangerous team."
"I don't know. It's going to be very, very interesting," he said, expressing the sentiment of most. Heading into Monday's game, it's hard to know what to expect.
Surely the USA's inexperienced backline will be tested. The weather could be a factor. And the large American crowd expected could make Estadio das Dunas seem like a home game in Columbus.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard said his defense is faster and more athletic than 2010, better equipped to match the pace of Ghana's attackers. But how much will inexperience matter?
The only expected starter on the backline with World Cup experience is DaMarcus Beasley, who played midfield in the previous tournaments. If Klinsmann goes with the same lineup used last weekend against Nigeria, Kyle Beckerman will play more of a defensive midfield role, allowing Bradley and Jermaine Jones the freedom to go forward.
Heavy rains flooded streets here and led to the evacuation of some homes. Rain continued, intermittently, through Sunday, but the condition of the field looked much better than some streets.
"In our game no matter what the circumstances are, this group is ready to go the extra mile, to make it happen tomorrow to get itself a win," Klinsmann said. "If it's raining, snowing, thunder or lightning, this is about football where you play in any circumstances – wet, dry, heat, humidity. Both teams are on the field and will do the best, so we're not worried about that stuff at all. … Whatever the circumstances are, we are going to embrace them and make it work."
The Estadio das Dunas sits on the site of the city's former stadium, the Machadao, and, like many of the country's new stadiums, is surrounded by a construction site. Built for the World Cup, the design is modeled after the city's famous attraction: its beautiful sand dunes. The shell-like roof was built to shield spectators from the sun, and presumably works for the rain too.
With a capacity of 42,086, many of those at today's game are expected to be in red, white and blue. Gyan said that was the case in the previous two World Cup games against the USA, and look how that turned out.