NATAL, Brazil — Jurgen Klinsmann speaks with pragmatism. He books his airline tickets with hope.
The U.S. coach caused a stir in the lead-up to soccer’s championship when he said that “I think for us now, talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic.”
But on the eve of the Americans’ opener against Ghana, he revealed this: “I booked my flight after the final.”
The U.S. has never advanced after starting with a loss, and it is grouped with the 37th-ranked Black Stars along with No. 2 Germany and No. 4 Portugal.
A two-day downpour has flooded some streets in this northeastern Brazilian beach town. While the skies started to clear a bit Sunday, the forecast was unsettled for Monday night’s game, when the Americans try to avenge losses to Ghana that knocked them out of the past two World Cups.
Klinsmann sounded just like the U.S. Postal Service.
“It’s raining. If it’s snowing. If it’s – what else? – thunder or lightning ... field wet, field dry, heat, humidity, whatever,” he said Sunday. “We’re not worried about that stuff at all.”
A total of 3.11 inches of rain fell Friday and 2.95 more Saturday, according to AccuWeather’s Anthony Sagliani, and by late Saturday night cars had to navigate at least 18 inches of standing water. Natal’s City Hall declared a flood alert and evacuated dozens of residents as a precaution in the Mae Luiza neighborhood in the city’s west.
Still, the field appeared firm during workouts Sunday at the new Arena das Dunas, whose wavy, asymmetrical exterior was designed to resemble the nearby sand dunes of a city nearly as close to west Africa (1,800 miles) as to the American base camp in Sao Paulo (1,400 miles).
The forecast calls for a temperature of about 80 degrees (27 Celsius), high humidity – Natal is 400 miles south of the equator – and a slight chance of showers.
“The weather is what it is, and as players that’s not something we can control,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “You get to this point, you’re not worried about little details, about whether the wind is blowing, whether the sun is out.”
Thousands of U.S. fans are expected. The American Outlaws supporters group chartered two Boeing 767s from Houston that brought 530 fans to Brazil, and the U.S. Soccer Federation said it sold its official allotment of about 2,000 tickets.
Ghana beat the Americans by identical 2-1 scores in the final group-stage game at Germany in 2006 and in the second round at South Africa four years ago. The U.S., appearing at its seventh straight World Cup and 10th overall, has never lost to a team three straight times in the tournament.
“It’s going to be like they’re coming for revenge,” said Ghana captain Asamoah Gyan, whose overtime goal was the difference in the 2010 match.
Teams that won their openers have advanced 85 percent of the time since the 32-nation format began in 1998. Just 9 percent of nations starting with a loss advanced, and 58 percent of those beginning with draws reached the knockout rounds.
“This is just an awesome moment, because that’s the biggest stage you can have, where you kind of want to show that you improved, and nothing better than against the team that beat you the last two World Cups,” Klinsmann said. “So this, as we mentioned before, is like start the whole World Cup with a final.”
Ghana lost a shootout to Uruguay in the 2010 quarterfinals. The Black Stars are the youngest of the 32 World Cup teams with an average age of 25 years, 6 months, according to FIFA, while the U.S. is the 12th-oldest at 27 years, 10 months.
“Now people back home believe we can do more, which puts pressure on the players,” Gyan said.
Barring late injuries, Tim Howard will be in goal, and Fabian Johnson figures to start at right back, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler in central defense and DaMarcus Beasley at left back. Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones and Bradley anchor the midfield, and Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore will be up front. The fourth midfielder likely will come from among Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi and Brad Davis. Beasley would become the first American to play in four World Cups.
The Americans will wear their red white and blue road uniforms. While confident, Ghana coach James Appiah sounded wary.
“America years back I believe was more interested in baseball,” he said. “They are a big football country now.”