Jozy Altidore won’t play, Cristiano Ronaldo probably will but not at full speed.
While most American fans would take that tradeoff in a heartbeat, there’s much more in play for Sunday’s crucial Group G match between the USA and Portugal (6 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision). That’s not a knock on Altidore, per se, but a fair assessment of just how important the reigning World Player of the Year can be in a crucial World Cup match between teams of different origins yet similar identities.
Both teams have their share of technical players, yet the counterattack best suits them as well, and so a World Cup that has featured a remarkably high rate of wide-open sequences and chances at both ends might serve up a cagey, cat-and-mouse encounter. Neither team is all that comfortable transitioning from attacking to defending and thus may not commit many players forward unless it falls behind.
“We’ve seen games where the others team’s attacking looks dangerous, next thing you know they lose the ball, find Cristiano and it’s in the back of their net,” says midfielder Kyle Beckerman. “It’s going to be something we’ll always be aware of. It’s going to take eleven guys playing offense and defense to win this game.”
Yet both teams also have reason to press down on the pedal. Portugal goes into this match not only with zero points but a minus-4 goal differential after being hammered, 4-0, by Germany. It presents a much different challenge to the USA, even with Ronaldo slowed by a knee injury and three players absent because of injury or suspension. A tie against the USA would require Portugal to beat Ghana by a big score and get some help from Germany on the last day of group play next week to reach the round of 16.
“We have a lot of respect for Cristiano, he's a great player,” midfielder Jermaine Jones told journalists Thursday after the team arrived in Manaus from its base in Sao Paulo. “But I think you have to have respect for the whole team of Portugal.”
The USA, buoyed by a great result (2-1) against Ghana stemming from a decidedly shaky performance, knows it can and must play better against Portugal. Ronaldo gets most of the attention from fans and the press, but Manchester United winger Nani can also threaten from the flanks; against such players, cutting off the supply is a major priority.
“In any big game, the battle that goes on in the midfield is so important,” says Michael Bradley, who labored offensively against Ghana but helped blunt many of its attacks. “It goes such a long way on deciding who wins the game. Portugal is obviously a very different team than Ghana. They have a good mix of skillful, technical players, but still guys who physically are strong, are fast, guys who jump well.”
The Americans scored both of their goals against Ghana on set plays and radically altered the game’s dynamics by taking the lead from a throw-in just 34 seconds into the match. Clint Dempsey arrowed past two players to finish sweetly low inside the far post, yet the goal seemed to disrupt the USA as much as Ghana; the Americans squandered many of their possessions by passing sloppily and dribbling into crowded areas. They were rescued by the heroics of young defender John Brooks, a halftime replacement for Matt Besler. Brooks sank Ghana with a storybook header from a Graham Zusi corner kick in the final minutes.
Klinsmann could replace Altidore directly with either Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski, neither of which is a target forward, or use Dempsey as a lone striker with five players in midfield. The insertion of Brooks and Zusi to such dramatic effect confirms the Americans’ have some depth; how much Portugal’s backups can contribute is a major issue.
Portugal started off very slowly against Germany and then fizzled out altogether. By halftime, it was down to 10 men -- centerback Pepe was sent off in the 37th minute -- and behind by three goals. Ronaldo played the entire game, but striker Hugo Almeida departed in the first half with a pulled muscle. Eder replaced him to little effect and head coach Paulo Bento might opt for veteran Helder Postiga to face the USA. Defender Fabio Coentrao battled through a thigh injury against Germany and will also sit out Sunday.
The midfield trio of Joao Moutinho, Miguel Veloso, and Raul Meireles was throttled by Germany, yet an early goal -- Thomas Muellerstarted off his hat trick in the 12th minute -- and Pepe’s dismissal dropped Portugal into a deep hole it couldn’t climb out of. A stronger start Sunday is mandatory and if the USA opts for five in midfield Portugal will need to move the ball wide quickly to avoid being smothered.
The Iberian nation has also been reminded of the 2002 World Cup, in which the USA started its run to the quarterfinals by stunning Portugal, 3-2, in their group opener.
Portuguese fans will be nervous if their team is dependent on Nani, who has struggled with injuries and not been the impact player for his country and Manchester United that many expected. He missed the 2010 World Cup after injuring himself doing a back-flip to celebrate a goal. But with Ronaldo hobbled and Almeida unavailable, there aren’t too many alternatives.