Since the World Cup expanded to 32 countries in 1998, only four of 46 teams have rebounded from a loss in their opener to advance out of group play

By Mary Cunningham

How convenient that when the U.S. opens play in this World Cup this afternoon at 5:30 in Natal, 2,000 miles from Rio, it will again find Ghana standing in its way. But while U. S. goalkeeper Tim Howard hasn’t forgotten that Ghana knocked the Yanks out in the last two World Cups he seems to have forgiven.

“I want back a lot of things in life, but I can’t get them,” he said. “There is no revenge factor. We don’t feel that. That’s not what’s motivating us.”

What is motivating the U.S. team is the need to get the tournament off to a quick start. Since the World Cup expanded to 32 countries in 1998, only four of 46 teams have rebounded from a loss in their opener to advance out of group play.

A loss in this opener would be particularly devastating because, to reach the knockout round, the U.S. likely needs at least a win and a tie in its three group games. And with Portugal, the world’s fourth-ranked team, and No. 2 Germany next on the schedule, today’s opener is a game the Americans can’t afford to give away.

So revenge? No. This is strictly business.

“Everybody starts at zero, so that first game is really important,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We’ve certainly made no secret of the fact that all the focus at this point is about Ghana, knowing that a good result puts us in a really good spot. But just because we talk about it doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed.”

In that case, a little extra motivation can’t hurt.

“I don’t think it’s revenge,” U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann said with a smile. “Maybe the players that were there four years ago, they want to get some extra kick and energy out of that. That’s all right with me.”

Either way, to get the result it wants, the U.S. will need mistake-free play from central defenders Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, a productive game from Bradley and lots of energy and creativity up front from captain Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.

They got all that and more in their final World Cup warm-up, in which Altidore scored twice in a 2-1 win over Nigeria, a team that plays a style very similar to Ghana’s.

That was a friendly in Florida, though. Today, the U.S. will be starting six players making their World Cup debuts. Howard said it’s hard to predict how each will react to the nerves and emotion when stepping onto soccer’s biggest stage.

“Once those lights come on, you have to deal with that and figure out your own peace of mind within that chaos,” he said.

One more potential obstacle faces Klinsmann’s team: the weather.

Before the sun reappeared Sunday morning, torrential rain fell in Natal for three straight days, flooding streets, blocking roads and triggering a landslide that destroyed at least two homes and led to the evacuation of more than four dozen others.

More could fall today, with the forecast calling for a 40 percent chance of rain and 82 percent humidity at game time.

Klinsmann says bring it on.

“If it’s raining, if it’s snowing, if it’s thunder and lightning or whatever, this is about football, where you play in any circumstances,” said Klinsmann, whose team practiced in heavy rain Saturday before testing the stadium field Sunday.

“Field wet, field dry, heat, humidity, whatever — we’re not worried about that stuff at all. So whatever the circumstances are, we’re going to embrace them and make it work.”

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