SAO PAULO — The midnight flight back from Natal to Sao Paulo was quiet. The United States men’s national team had gotten the job done in their World Cup opener against Ghana, slaying their demons and getting those crucial points. Some players silently watched footage from the game on the chartered plane back to their base here. Most players were asleep. A savagely physical contest had taken a lot out of them.
Striker Jozy Altidore had strained his left hamstring in the 23rd minute and could be out anywhere from a single game to the remainder of the tournament. Defender Matt Besler had tweaked his hamstring as well and was yanked at half-time. Both would get MRI tests Tuesday afternoon. Geoff Cameron, the other central defender, had been under the weather. Forward Clint Dempsey had broken his nose when his face collided violently with a Ghanaian shin. Winger Alejandro Bedoya had re-aggravated an old hip injury and suffered from cramps.
The latter four are expected back by the upcoming Portugal game, the Americans’ second contest at this Brazilian World Cup. Altidore, the team’s irreplaceable target man, is probably not. “We are full of hope that he comes back still in this tournament,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. But the mere fact that he discussed a return during this tournament, rather than the upcoming game or even the group stage, is probably telling.
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But no matter who is still standing in what can amount to a month-long race of attrition, the World Cup goes on. And the Yanks next face Portugal, the fourth-ranked country in the world in Manaus, the jungle city in the very heart of the Amazon rain forest. “I think we switched already gears,” Klinsmann said on Tuesday. “Our total focus is on Portugal now. Ghana is far away from us already, out of our minds. We knew that it was very important to get those three points. We worked hard for it; it was a very tricky game. But our mindset is 100 percent on Portugal from now on, from last night already.”
If the win was gloriously hard-fought and excised the ghosts of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, when Ghana beat and bounced the USA from those tournaments, it is nevertheless old news now. This is still the group of death. After Portugal comes Germany, the second-ranked team in the world. And there simply isn’t the time to dwell. “It’s always difficult for the coaches to move [the team] on from an emotional ending of a game into the next game, and always telling the players, ‘Stay on the ground, stay focused, the next game is even more difficult than the game we just played,’” said Klinsmann.
That’s why the US chose to leave Natal behind on the night of the game, even if it meant they’d arrive back at the team hotel at 4:45 a.m. “To make it clear that now the only thing we talk about is Portugal,” Klinsmann explained. “We only talk now how we can beat this Portuguese team with all these amazing players that they have.”
Portugal, like the USA is a team hurting. Star left back Fabio Coentrao is out for the tournament with a thigh injury. Striker Hugo Almeida likely won’t be available for the remainder of the group stage with his own injury. Central defender Pepe will be suspended against the Americans, and quite possibly longer, for head-butting Germany’s Thomas Mueller while the latter was on the ground. Die Mannschaft won that game 4-0 on Monday, a few hours before the USA’s game. And Portugal’s reigning World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo, just back from his own injuries, looked badly out of sorts.
“It’s a difficult situation for them now after that 4-0 defeat,” Klinsmann said of the Portuguese team. “They are with their backs against the wall. It makes it even more difficult [for us] to get a result.”
Portugal is a stronger opponent than the one the USA faced on Monday. Klinsman called them “A different caliber than Ghana. It’s one of the favorites, actually, for the tournament and that has very exceptional players.” That may be a stretch. Bookies have priced Portugal at 40-to-1 to win the World Cup. But the point stands: with each successive game, the level of difficulty for the Americans is heightened.
As such, progress must be made. “There’s certain things that we can do a lot better – keeping the ball, be a little calmer and confident with possession,” said Bedoya.
“We need to play more of a field-possession game or steal some of the field at times,” added midfielder Graham Zusi. “We tried to play so much out of our back. At times we can put the ball in their end and go up to pressure them.”
The payoff for an improved performance could be enormous. With another win comes the tantalizing prospect of an all-but-assured spot in the knockout round, before the USA even faces Germany. With Portugal on the ropes, it’s not inconceivable, even if the task remains a tall one.
The Americans had previously counted on needing a point from their second game to better position themselves. But that strategy contains risk. “Based on past World Cups, sometimes four points isn’t even enough,” said Bedoya. “We’re going to try to win that game and then we don’t have to think about anything.”
“We believe in it,” said Klinsmann. “We believe that we can go to Manaus and beat them. We want to go to the next round, so if it takes that, to beat Portugal, then that’s what we have to do.”
The team will have the day off on Wednesday, to recover and spend it with family. On Thursday, preparations for the upcoming jostle in the jungle begin in earnest.