Photo by Kieran McManus/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAO PAULO — The Portuguese National Team has 23 players, 21 if you don’t count suspended defender Pepe and injured defender Fabio Coentrao, but there was only one player reporter after reporter wanted to ask U.S. national team players about on Thursday.
That player was Cristiano Ronaldo.
The U.S. will meet Portugal at Arena Amazonia in Manaus on Sunday, and plenty of the talk leading up to that important Group G match has been, and will continue to be, about the health of Ronaldo and how to defend him. That is natural given his superstar status and the fact that he is ailing from a left knee injury, but the Americans fully anticipate that he will play in the potential do-or-die match for Portugal.
They know stopping Ronaldo won’t be easy, and will require a collective effort from the full U.S. team, but American players stated repeatedly on Thursday morning at Sao Paulo FC’s Training Facility that there are more players to worry about than just the reigning Ballon d’Or winner.
“As a team, we have a lot of respect for Cristiano — he’s a great player — but I think you have to have respect for the whole Portugal team,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones. “They have a lot of good players. OK, he is the key player, but it depends. We have a lot of respect for everybody.
“First, we will try to make it our own game, look what we can do and not what can Portugal do or what can Cristiano do. It’s up to us for what we want. When we stick together as a team, like we did against Ghana, then I think we have a chance to win this game.”
Doing that could clinch a spot in the Round of 16 for the Americans that beat Ghana, 2-1, this past Monday while also possibly eliminating Portugal, who were on the losing end of a 4-0 result against Germany in their World Cup opener.
Ronaldo will be keen on trying to prevent that from happening, but Portugal also boasts a cast of technically-gifted players. Nani, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho are some of the other veterans capable of making a difference, and the U.S. knows it needs to be wary of all of them in order to pick up the three more points that will likely assure it a longer stay in Brazil.
“I always say that a team is important, not just in two or three players so if you stick together like a team, and fight like a team … you will win the game,” Jones said. “The NBA Finals showed how it works. The (San Antonio) Spurs were the better team and that is why they won the championship.”
All of that said, Ronaldo will still be a likely focal point of the U.S. game plan. The chiseled, 29-year-old veteran is strong, speedy, athletic, tremendously skilled and capable of punishing even the slightest of mistakes.
He also has a cannon of a shot that the U.S. will need to try and stymie by not allowing him too much space or time on the ball regardless of how far out he is. Then, there’s his ever-dangerous trademark free kicks.
“He kind of made a free kick kind of his own,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman. “I think I read somewhere or saw something that was about he’s emulating a ping-pong shot. He just makes the ball go up and down really fast and the ball kind of does some crazy things.”
Ronaldo is capable of playing on either flank and at the tip of the attack, so it is not exactly clear who will be marking him on Sunday. Right back Fabian Johnson might be the player tasked with that responsibility or it could be left back DaMarcus Beasley or even centerbacks like Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler.
Johnson, however, seems the most likely since Ronaldo typically prefers to line up on the left flank. The fullback knows that he will have his hands full if that is the case, but he also plans on being undeterred in his ability to get forward and join the attack on occasion.
“I think I’m going to play my game as always,” said Johnson. “I don’t know where he’s going to play because sometimes it seems like he’s moving all around, so I don’t know if he’s going to play left winger or striker, right winger. I’m just trying to play my game.”
If the Americans can improve on their showing vs. Ghana and play a more possession-based game, that will go a big way in helping them limit Ronaldo. After all, there is only so much damage he can do without the ball.
“I think our best defense is offense and we have to be extremely clean with the ball,” Beckerman said. “We just have to do it. We just have to do it. We’re going to have to be clean with the ball, we’re going to have to finish our chances and I think if you can go a goal up on them, it helps a big, big part of that because I think they do like to counterattack.”