Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
MANAUS, Brazil — The U.S. Men’s National Team has a golden chance to move into the Round of 16, but in its way stands arguably the best player in the world, and a talented team in desperation mode.
With Germany and Ghana having played to a 2-2 draw on Saturday, the U.S. heads into its second Group G match against Portugal knowing three points will book an early ticket to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. The Americans enter Sunday’s game at Arena Amazonia with plenty of confidence after its 2-1 triumph over Ghana, but they also aware the Portuguese will be keen on rebounding from an underwhelming 4-0 defeat to Germany and eager to avoid an early exit from the World Cup.
Leading the charge for Portugal is none other than reigning Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, the international superstar who is dealing with some lingering left knee issues but still seems certain to play given what is at stake. Much of the talk leading up to the rumble in the jungle is how the Americans plan on dealing with Ronaldo and his array of weapons, but Jurgen Klinsmann’s side has insisted throughout the week that there are more players on Portugal’s roster to worry about.
“We are (not) playing only against Cristiano,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones. “I think it’s important for us that everybody stays 100 percent concentrated. We have trust in Fabian Johnson on the (right) side, but Portugal has not only one player. They have a lot of good players, so we have to be completely, 100 percent with the whole team to stop this team and win that game.”
Jones and the Americans have a point. Ronaldo might dominate the headlines anywhere and everywhere Portugal goes, but it has other players capable of making a difference. Nani, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles are just some of the skillful veterans Portugal has at its disposal.
Still, stopping Ronaldo — or at least limiting him — is paramount for the Americans if they are hoping to secure an early place in the Round of 16.
“He’s the single hardest-working player I’ve ever been around on and off the field,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was teammates with Ronaldo at Manchester United earlier in their careers. “His work ethic is incredible. I think if you pay too much attention to Ronaldo, somebody else will beat us. … Of course, he’s the main man. He’s the main man of this tournament, so we have to know where he is and we have to try and collectively get around him and get some help and support each other defensively.”
Ronaldo will draw a lot of focus, but the midfield battle will also be key. The U.S. struggled against Ghana to hold onto possession, which allowed the Black Stars to send waves of attacks that the American back line did well defending for large stretches.
An improvement will be needed in that area, especially from midfield maestro Michael Bradley. Bradley was admittedly not up to his usual high standards against the Ghanaians and it is vital to the U.S. team’s chances that the veteran delivers a better showing with more accurate passing against a Portugal side that said on Saturday that it intends to attack.
“This is now the moment where you can prove yourself, this is moment where you can step up and play those guys and put them in place,” Klinsmann said. “We want to put Cristiano and his team in place. We want to get out there with all the energy we have, with all the discipline that we’re going to bring and all the aggressiveness we’re going to bring to the plate and make it our game.”
A more possession-based game would also suit the Americans in this one, as it would prevent how many touches the ever-dangerous Ronaldo has while also allowing them to have the opportunity to break down a Portugal defense that is missing two starters and possibly three.
Star Real Madrid center back Pepe will miss the match due to a red card received against Germany, Fabio Coentrao has been ruled out for the remainder of the tournament with a thigh injury and central defender Bruno Alves is a game-time decision due to a thigh issue of his own.
While a weakened Portuguese back line bodes well for the U.S.’s chances, Klinsmann also has an injury of his own to worry about. Jozy Altidore is out for the match with the left hamstring strain sustained in the win over Ghana, and it seems that either Chris Wondolowski or Aron Johannsson will replace Altidore in the lineup.
Both Wondolowski and Johannsson possess different qualities and neither is in the exact mold of Altidore, leaving Klinsmann with an interesting decision to make. Klinsmann could go for the more technical and speedy Johannsson or the more physical and hardworking Wondolowski.
“We think we have a very good replacement for Jozy Altidore and not just with one player, (but) with a couple,” Howard said. “Jozy is obviously a big loss for us, but we can fill that gap and we feel confident that whether it be Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski or Clint (Dempsey) up there on his own, we feel confident in our ability.”
The Americans are equally as confident with regards to playing in the conditions that are expected in Manaus. The forecast calls for rain and humidity on Sunday evening, but the U.S. is taking a page from its first match by not worrying much about the weather.
No, the U.S. team’s focus is strictly on trying to overcome Portugal and advancing to the next part of the tournament.
“(It’s) just another motivating factor,” Howard said of the Germany-Ghana result. “It gets us through the group and the group and if we already didn’t want to win or felt like we didn’t need to win, that gives us everything we need and more. We are going to go into the game and fight tooth and nail, but that’s a good result for us to know that if we can win we take care of business and the rest is history. It’s exciting.”