Cristiano Ronaldo's uncertain status not impeding USA's focus
JUN 19, 2014 11:00p ET
SAO PAULO --
United States men's national team star Jermaine Jones was visibly bored. In the span of just a few minutes, he'd been asked about Cristiano Ronaldo four times. Over at the adjacent table, Fabian Johnson was on his fourth Ronaldo question as well. Poor Kyle Beckerman got six.
Little wonder. Team USA faces Portugal in their second game of the 2014 World Cup on Sunday. And Portugal is more or less synonymous with Ronaldo, the flamboyant forward, reigning FIFA Ballon d'Or winner, serial supermodel-dater, shirt-remover and muscle-flexer, and noted hair-gel connoisseur.
Ronaldo's status for the game is as mysterious as he is elusive on the field. He has officially been listed with a muscle injury in his left thigh and chronic tendonitis in his left knee. But other than that, the outside world has been left guessing at the true nature and severity of whatever ails the 29-year-old. Ever since leading Real Madrid to its first UEFA Champions League title in a dozen years in late May, Ronaldo has hobbled in and out of practice.
A few hours before the United States gutted out a 2-1 win over Ghana on Monday, Portugal had been hammered 4-0 by Germany. Left back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida were injured; Coentrao's Cup is over. Hot-headed defender Pepe got himself sent off and suspended for head-butting Germany's Thomas Mueller -- while he was sitting on the ground. All will consequently miss the USA game. But worst of all, as far as the Portuguese are concerned, Ronaldo still looked badly out of sorts. They aren't a one-man team, exactly, but without Ronaldo's loping dribbles and knuckle-shots they lack a true fear factor.
But like all superstars, Ronaldo reacts in a big way when he's cornered. As USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann put it a few days ago: "I don't know how Cristiano Ronaldo behaves when he's angry."
Hence the angst and obsession over a single player, albeit one who has scored a staggering 243 goals over the last four seasons. Johnson, USA's right back who would likely line up directly against Ronaldo, sees many strengths in his would-be opponent.
"He's athletic, he's fast, he's technical," said Johnson. "He can almost score from anywhere it seems like. When he's trying to take a shot it's always dangerous for the other team."
But there's more to Portugal. An underappreciated supporting cast lurks in Ronaldo's long shadow. Playmakers Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles can pick opponents apart with their passing. Nani, playing on the opposite flank of Ronaldo, can be lethal on his day. "It's not just Ronaldo," added Johnson. "It's the whole team. They have great players, and we have to stop all of them. Not just focus on one guy."
Jones, the United States midfield enforcer, isn't as preoccupied with the opponent. "We will try to make it our own game, look what we can do and not what can Portugal do," he said. "When we stick together as a team, like we did against Ghana, then I think we have a chance to win this game."
That team, however, will be without striker Jozy Altidore, who strained his left hamstring against Ghana. His absence will be felt. And how exactly Klinsmann will fill his role with no other target striker on the team is the big question.
The other X-factor is the game's host city: Manaus. This improbable metropolis sits at the very heart of the Amazon, a jungle town where a stadium was somehow built by shipping the materials up the river because there was no other way of getting them there. Extreme heat, humidity, malaria and yellow fever make it a stupefyingly impractical place to play soccer, or do anything else.
But then the Americans suspect it might actually give them an edge.
"A lot of us, we play in the MLS, where we go to Houston, we go to Dallas," said Beckerman. "The Midwest is hot and steamy in the summer, [the] East Coast is too. And guys that don't play -- that play in Europe -- they've played in the MLS and played in these types of temperatures. So I'm hoping that when we get there it'll seem familiar and seem like one of those MLS cities and it won't be too big of a deal."
Much will still hang up in the thick Manaus air by the time the USA and Portugal kick off on Sunday. But if the Americans pull off a second straight upset -- and Germany doesn't lose to Ghana in the other game -- they could, incredibly, have qualified from the group of death with a game to spare.
It won't be easy. "They are with their backs against the wall," said Klinsmann. "So that makes it even more difficult to get a result. But that's what you want. That's what a World Cup is about. We also have a chance with a win to hopefully qualify already. It can't get any better."