Brazil 2014: World Cup Group G – USMNT vs. Portugal – Preview

A rare sighting of CR7 with his shirt on (photo: zimbio.com)

A rare sighting of CR7 with his shirt on (photo: zimbio.com)

With the USMNT poised to take on Cristiano Ronaldo, oh – and Portugal too, OTF’s Joe Maskivish previews the match…

The oft used axiom “to be the best, you have to beat the best” will be on full display Sunday (6pm ET; ESPN) in the Amazon. While beating Portugal would not suggest a rise to the top of the mountain for the United States, facing off against, and besting, the global superstar that is Cristiano Ronaldo would signify taking down one of the giants of the game.

The number of storylines heading into this match are seemingly endless and the historical significance of the mere matchup against CR7 cannot be understated.

However, contrary to popular belief, Portugal is far more than Ronaldo and ten other guys. This Portuguese side was the pre-tournament pick of many to make a deep run, possibly one that ends in a trophy raising. Make no mistake, any one of those ten “other” guys would start for the U.S.

The curveball in the build-up to the game is the fact the injury bug has hit Group G hard. Both Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida will be absent from the Portuguese lineup after a rough opening match against Germany. These injuries, coupled with the red card suspension of Pepe, mean A Selecção face the Americans without three of their starters and a lack of depth behind them.

Also needing to be mentioned are the swirling rumors of a potential Ronaldo absence.

Battling a knee injury that has been nagging him for some time, football journalists from around the world jumped at the sight of Ronaldo leaving training with an ice pack strapped to the injured leg. Since then, he has returned to training and not much more has been made of the situation.

Because why wouldn't you play soccer in the Amazon? (photo: worldcupofjoe.com)

Because why wouldn’t you play soccer in the Amazon? (photo: worldcupofjoe.com)

While no one can be 100% certain Ronaldo will play until he officially takes the field, it’s looking more likely he will be there and the rumors were just that: rumors.

One thing for certain, however, is CR7 is not at full strength and this puts a damper on the Portuguese attack. Injured or not, Portugal’s offense runs through Ronaldo. His injury was on full display in the embarrassing loss to Germany, as he may as well have not played at all. He was a non-factor the entire game and if his condition remains the same against the U.S., it’s hard to imagine him being too effective on Sunday.

Unfortunately for the Americans, they were unable to make it through the opener without injuries of their own. While Matt Besler (hamstring) and Clint Dempsey (broken nose) appear to be a full go against Portugal, Jozy Altidore (hamstring) will be watching in street clothes. Witnessing Jozy grab the back of his leg and flail in pain in the opening moments against Ghana, it was quite evident he would be out this match.

Now the question is: what direction does Jurgen Klinsmann go? While it seems obvious he will simply replace Altidore with either Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski, don’t be surprised if Graham Zusi is actually the replacement.

Zusi’s inclusion would allow Dempsey freedom to run around up top and wreak havoc on the undermanned Portugal defense. This formation would also allow the U.S. another midfielder to clog up the open spaces where Ronaldo likes to roam.

The key to shutting down the Portuguese attack could be Fabian Johnson (photo: ussoccerplayers.com)

The key to shutting down the Portuguese attack could be Fabian Johnson (photo: ussoccerplayers.com)

The enormity and significance of this match for the current run and the future of U.S. soccer cannot be minimized. At the time this game kicks off on Sunday, the whole world will know the result of the Germany vs. Ghana game the day before. Assuming Germany can handle the Black Stars, a United States victory would qualify the Red, White, and Blue for the knockout round.

In order to accomplish this feat, the U.S. is going to need to play far better than it did against Ghana. More time on the ball is needed, with smart and precise passing to move forward. With the game taking place in the ridiculous climate of the Amazon, the U.S. cannot afford to chase the ball for 90 minutes as they did in their previous showing.

The responsibility of moving the ball forward and holding possession falls on the shoulders of Michael Bradley. The General simply must improve his play if the Americans are to have a shot. His performance was subpar in the opener but if he can play like we all know he can, good things will come.

Stopping Cristiano Ronaldo will be the duty of several men in the American lineup. Jermaine Jones did yeoman’s work in his defensive midfield role against Ghana and he will be called upon to do so again. The play of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler/John Brooks was good enough to get the job done last time out and will need to be even better against Portugal.

Where the U.S. defense needs to step up is at the two fullback positions. Both Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley need to improve and shut down Ronaldo’s attempts to out flank the Americans. Causing turnovers, getting the ball to Kyle Beckerman’s feet to allow him to feed Bradley and get the flow going in the other direction will be the order of the day.

The downside of no Pepe is he won't be in the lineup to get a red card against the U.S. (photo: mlssoccer.com)

The downside of no Pepe is he won’t be in the lineup to get a red card against the U.S. (photo: mlssoccer.com)

While it’s all much easier said than done, anyone that follows this team regularly knows the talent, skill and effort is on the roster to pull off this win. Now it’s up to the guys to make it happen. With one of the biggest games in American history on the way, what are some questions heading in?

  • Can the U.S. keep Cristiano Ronaldo off the scoreboard?
  • Will the one-on-one defending of the American fullbacks be improved?
  • Will the U.S. have the opportunity to possess the ball more than against Ghana?
  • Can the U.S. exploit the substitutes thrust into the starting lineup for Portugal?
  • When the final whistle blows, will the U.S. be celebrating a trip to the knockout round?

OTF Starting XI:1023099_USA

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OTF’s Joe Maskivish will be tracking the USMNT throughout the World Cup. Follow him @JoeMaskivish.

 

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