Which Portugal team will the United States face on Sunday evening -- a wobbling, shell-shocked side shorn of two of its best players? Or a wounded animal, led by the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, that is poised to strike back after being humiliated by Germany in its opening game?
The answer could be critical to the Americans’ prospects for advancing to the knockout round of the World Cup in Brazil. Germany’s 2-2 draw with Ghana—an absolutely pulsating soccer match—throws Group G wide open. The result means that Germany hasn’t qualified for the knockout round; the Germans have all to play for when they meet the U.S. next week.
The U.S. is riding high after Monday’s stunning 2-1 win over Ghana, a win that looks all that much brighter in view of Ghana’s outstanding performance against Germany. The U.S. bookended the game with goals by Clint Dempsey in the opening seconds of the match and John Brooks near the end to snatch the win. Between those goals, though, the U.S. looked dreadful and defensive for large periods of the game. An early goal will sometimes do that, tempting a team to relax when it shouldn’t.
The U.S. midfield needs to reassert itself on offense. Michael Bradley, normally its calm maestro, sprayed the ball around the park with minimal accuracy. Bradley admitted as much, so expect a better game from him.
Both teams will have to deal with playing in the heart of the Amazon, at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus. The location guarantees high heat and humidity that has clearly drained other teams that have played opening round games there. U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann is a fitness fanatic, so the Americans figure to be ready.
Whether Portugal is ready is another question. The last time these two teams played in the World Cup, in 2002, the U.S. produced an upset win against a superior opponent, a team considered to be Portugal’s “golden generation,” including Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto. That isn’t the case this time. Portugal was rocked 4-0 by a German team that overwhelmed them from the start. German speed in possession is frightening, and it produced two goals within 32 minutes. Then Portugal’s numbskull central defender Pepe got himself chucked out for head-butting Germany’s Thomas Mueller. The result was a foregone conclusion after that. Even worse, Portugal lost its most creative defender, Fabio Coentrao, to injury. Both Pepe and Coentrao, who play for Real Madrid, are out for the U.S. game.
That may not mean much if Cristiano Ronaldo plays like the star he is. Portugal struggled to qualify for the World Cup, with everything coming down to a final game against Sweden in which the Real Madrid forward singlehandedly destroyed the opposition. Three times Ronaldo bolted past the Swedish defense and three times he scored. Obviously containing Ronaldo is vital to any winning strategy.
The good news for the U.S. is that it can be done. In Portugal’s final game in the 2010 World Cup against Spain in South Africa, Ronaldo was reduced to an angry, isolated figure by the end of the game, as the Spanish had cut off the supply of the ball to him. Ball control will do that. And there is also some suspicion that Ronaldo is not 100% fit. But he is 100% expected to play. “We understand what a special player he is,” says Bradley. “We understand how good a team they have, but it’s not something that fazes us.” Still, with the Portuguese facing elimination Sunday night if they lose, the U.S. can expect passionate, if not furious, resistance.
Like Portugal, the U.S. has its own injury problems. Striker Jozy Altidore twanged his hamstring in the first half against Ghana, and Clint Dempsey had his nose broken by an errant kick. Altidore is out since he can’t run, which means the U.S. loses a forward who can hold the ball while holding off defenders. Dempsey will start, since his nose would have to be sticking out the back of his head to keep him off the field.
Up front, Klinsmann now has to choose between Aron Johannsson, a 23-year-old striker who impressed the coach in qualifying games, and Chris Wondolowski, a 31- year-old veteran who is a great goal poacher. Johannsson replaced Altidore in the Ghana game but saw little of the ball. “Both Wondo and I have different styles than Jozy,” said Johannsson. “If either one of us gets on the field, then we just try to play our game and try to do what the coach wants us to do. If that’s to play like Jozy, then we’ll try to do that. And if he wants us to play like we normally play then we’ll try to do that." On the other hand, Klinsmann can push the versatile Dempsey higher up, and move midfielder Graham Zusi into the lineup.
This is the perfect opportunity for the United States. The team is exactly where Klinsmann wanted it to be, and now it faces a weakened foe in Portugal. Failing to take advantage will have huge consequences. “If you are not able to follow up the first game with another good result,” said Bradley after the Ghana game, “then the first game goes right out the window.”