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U.S. vs. Portugal preview

by Matt Traub
Jun 21, 2014 11:27 PM EDT



A week ago at this time, there was apprehension. There was "well, they need a lot of breaks." Now, all of a sudden, it's clear. The United States can advance to the second round of the World Cup with a victory against Portugal on Sunday, which is easier said that done. Since the modern era of U.S. Soccer starting in 1990, the Americans have won five games in the World Cup. In all but one of the previous four occasions, the following game has been a loss;

1994: Upset Colombia, lose to Romania in final group play
2002: Upset Portugal, tie South Korea in group play
2002: Beat Mexico in second round, lose to Mexico in quarterfinals
2010: Beat Algeria in group play, lose to Ghana in second round.

The easy storyline is Portugal comes in wounded, with players out injured, Pepe missing because of a red card, and Ronaldo carrying a clear knock that will not make him 100 percent in Manaus. To buy into the injuries and relax accordingly is folly.

Who starts up front? For the Americans, the injury question of who will replace Jozy Altidore is paramount (the defense should stay the same, with John Anthony Brooks returning to the bench for Matt Besler). There have been several options floated, including having Clint Dempsey move up front to be the target striker and bring in Graham Zusi for midfield and pack the middle.
Still though, the best bet would be to have Aron Johannsson slot in for Altidore. Johannsson had a poor performance against Ghana, but his ability to find channels and off-ball movement, honed during the past year in the Dutch Eredivisie, could prove perfect to go at a Portugal defense that allowed deep holes between its wing backs and center backs against Germany. Those holes were exploited by the Germans repeatedly in their 4-0 game; Johannsson, more than other forward Chris Wondolowski, would be able to use his movement to find those open spaces and play off Dempsey as Bradley goes forward, hopefully with more success than he did against Ghana in what most regarded as his worst U.S. performance in years. Bradley, perhaps more than the replacement of Altidore, will be the key because to get a result you have to score, and the U.S. as a whole has to ...
Be more proactive. The two goals against Ghana were on a piece of individual brilliance by Clint Dempsey off a throw-in, and a set piece. There was no sustained pressure, no possession in the offensive half let alone the final third. The U.S. played with fire and nearly got burnt against Ghana, and they cannot play the same game plan twice and expect to get away with it. Hard truth is that Ghana's Asamoah Gyan had two or three good chances that he should have buried, and on another day he would have scored on. Especially in the conditions that are expected in Manaus, the U.S. cannot sit in a shell for 90 minutes. The U.S. needs possession to be meaningful in the offensive half, and dangerous in the final third. It needs to be able to say that it did not score two goals on two chances like it did against Ghana; whatever the number of goals it can score, it should have six, eight, more chances. There, of course, is a caveat. While they need to get forward, it should also keep foremost in its mind that it should ...
Stay at home on Ronaldo. Yes, he is nursing a knee injury that nobody truly knows how serious it is. But he is still the reigning world player of the year, and even if he's at 90 percent, he's still the alpha male on the field Sunday. Portugal, when it had a few chances against Germany, had players such as Nani seem to pass up a better chance for themselves to pass to Ronaldo. This is where the U.S. defense will have to take its game plan from Ghana and flip it, essentially.
Against Ghana, the Black Stars were intent on trying to go at DeMarcus Beasley on the left side. But the U.S. did a terrific job of never letting Ghana have an extra man on the left flank, keeping Jermaine Jones in a defensive shape on that side instead of going forward. What the U.S. also did was in the first half have Matt Besler get out quickly to the left flank to make sure it was always at worst a 3-on-3 situations, with Kyle Beckerman dropping into Besler's space. In the second half, Beckerman went out to the left flank most of the time while Brooks stayed at home, and Bradley dropped into the Beckerman space. This is what in a way kept Clint Dempsey and Johansson isolated in the second half, because Bradley was not forward enough.
Now, that plan is flipped, because Portugal will go so much through its left side with Ronaldo, putting Fabian Johnson under the defensive spotlight. Geoff Cameron had an outstanding game at right-center half for the U.S. next to Johnson, and Alejandro Bedoya is a disciplined right mid, so it will center on Johnson because unlike what he did at the Ghana game, he need to know that he ...
Can't switch off. A mistake by Johnson is what caused the Ghana goal that tied the game late in the second half. Seconds before the goal, the U.S. was in fairly good defensive shape. Geoff Cameron is tracking Gyan as he receives the pass from Andre Ayew. Brooks and Beasley are 2-on-1 against the other Ghana player in the box. With Bradley pulled out wide, Beckerman is back at the top of the penalty box to make sure there are no open late runs. But what Johnson did was get caught ball watching, and Ayiw used that indecision to get open. That type of split-second judgement is what could cost the U.S. against a great player such as Ronaldo. Lionel Messi only needed three yards, if that, to shoot and score against a packed-in Iran on Saturday. Ronaldo only needs similar space.

One group win has already been recorded; another victory against Portugal on Sunday, and the expectations will be increased dramatically. As an analyst for ESPN in 2010, Klinsmann remarked that the U.S. seemed content to celebrate making the knockout round and did not take the opportunity afforded them to advance further. As coach, Klinsmann will have to make sure Sunday is not another opportunity lost.