Upbeat USA enters vital showdown with Portugal on the ropes
JUN 21, 2014 10:16p ET
MANAUS, Brazil --
A precious and unexpected chance has presented itself to the United States men's national team, ahead of just their second game at the World Cup against Portugal on Sunday.
Ever since the tournament draw was made back in December, the American soccer community had been enveloped by anxiety over the wretched group the US had been handed -- pitting them against Germany, Portugal and Ghana. But following a cathartic and gutsy 2-1 win on Monday over the Ghanaians, who had bounced them from the last two World Cups, the Americans are positioned to secure their unlikely passage into the Round of 16 from this group of death with a full game to spare.
Germany pummeled Portugal 4-0 in their opener, and then drew Ghana 2-2 on Saturday. As such, if the Yanks beat Portugal, they are sure of their place in the knockout stage. Even a tie might do the trick, provided Ghana doesn't make up three points and the goal difference against Portugal on Thursday, while the USA faces Germany in Recife.
"For us, it's a huge opportunity tomorrow," said United States head coach Jurgen Klinsman about the match on Sunday. "We want to qualify for the next stage, so we are full of energy. We are very impatient and can't wait to get this whole thing started."
But getting a result is easier said than done, of course. Portugal is the world's fourth-ranked team and the bookies' favorite for the game. And a litany of factors could work against the Americans on Sunday night. For starters, there's the venue of the game itself. Manaus sits at the epicenter of the Amazon rainforest. It mushroomed during the rubber boom in the late 19th century and is somehow still going strong even though it is hot, humid and plagued by tropical diseases.
The jungle conditions might give the Americans an edge, though. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman pointed out that Americans are used to playing in heat and humidity stateside. Yet there is no diluting the impact of striker Jozy Altidore's hamstring injury -- the exact severity of which isn't known. He incurred it early during the Ghana win and will keep him out of Sunday's game.
While Altidore is maddeningly streaky in his goalscoring, his hold-up play up front is fundamental to Klinsmann's tactics. Portugal is a team that will likely push the play out to the wings, where their stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani thrive. Altidore is all the more useful in just such a game, providing a target for his peers.
Nevertheless, this bout with Portugal may be coming at the most opportune of times. Following their dismantling at the hands of the Germans, their camp is in disarray. Left back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida were injured in that game and are unavailable. Defensive anchor Pepe got himself suspended for head-butting Germany's Thomas Muller. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio is hurt as well. And Pepe's fellow central defender Bruno Alves will be a game-day decision. So as many as five starters could be missing against the USA. Ronaldo, meanwhile, who is the reigning world player of the year, has yet to put the nagging injuries to his left leg behind him and was largely ineffectual in his last game.
"Playing Portugal right now, there's two ways to look at it," said midfielder Michael Bradley. "It'd be easy to look and say, 'This is a good time to play them.' But the other side says they are in some ways a desperate team playing for their lives."
Portugal head coach Paulo Bento seemed to agree. "Either we win or we start making our suitcase," he said in his pre-game press conference.
"It's a difficult situation for them now," said Klinsmann. "They are with their backs against the wall. This is a very dangerous game, even more dangerous than before because when you get that 4-0 result from Germany, now you come into Manaus pretty angry. I don't know how Cristiano Ronaldo behaves when he's angry."
Much will hinge on Ronaldo's performance. The playboy winger is a menace to whomever he faces, leveraging his freak combination of size, speed, strength and skill to score often and from anywhere. But fixating entirely on Ronaldo could backfire. "It's not just Ronaldo," said right back Fabian Johnson, who will likely be tasked with guarding Ronaldo. "It's the whole team. They have great players, and we have to stop all of them. Not just focus on one guy."
The overarching theme of Klinsmann's three-year tenure has been the notion of getting the USA to play a 'proactive' style -- to take the game to opponents, as befits the American spirit. A pivotal game such as this one, against a stronger opponent finding itself in trouble, is just the time for the Americans to unleash that fresh outlook and untether itself from its reactive mindset. As of Saturday morning, Klinsmann had stopped talking to his players about Portugal, worrying only about his own side.
"We still have to focus on our game, how we want to play," said Klinsmann on Tuesday. "We have very, very good players on our end as well and we have the confidence to go into that game and say, 'We're here and we want to beat you.' We want to win this game."
But for that to happen, a marked improvement will be needed over the performance against Ghana, whose defeat was a tad fortuitous. "We want to feel like as the tournament is going on we are improving and growing," said Bradley. "Because the teams that are around at the end are always the teams that are able to do that. You never want to play your best game first."
So the Americans are hardly without hope, toiling to overturn the script written for them ahead of this World Cup -- prescribing a swift exit, perhaps without a single win. And there is precedent here. In 2002, the Americans raced out to a 3-0 lead over Portugal in their first game at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. They held on for 3-2 win and would reach the quarterfinals, the modern high-water mark. "We believe," said Klinsmann. "We believe that we can beat them."
Should they beat Portugal on Sunday, another such run is no longer inconceivable, and in spite of their lamentable lot, an American success story would suddenly become feasible.