SAO PAULO – Things could not be going much better for the U.S. national team even if you had been able to write the script before the 2014 World Cup began. Beating Ghana, watching Portugal lose to Germany by four goals, and seeing Portugal lose multiple starters to injuries and red cards. Throw in Cristiano Ronaldo’s reportedly gimpy knee, and things almost seem too good to be true heading into Sunday’s showdown vs. Portugal.
Jurgen Klinsmann surely isn’t counting any chickens before they hatch just yet. As a former World Cup winner as a player, and having led Germany to a third-place finish in 2006 as manager, Klinsmann knows what it takes to move on in the World Cup, and he knows taking results for granted because of favorable circumstances is a sure way to see a dream start turn into a nightmare.
The task is a simple one for the U.S. Beat Portugal and the Americans will reach the Round of 16. Sure, Ghana could still theoretically beat Germany on Saturday and make things interesting in Group G, but failing that monumental upset, the U.S. team would secure a place in the knockout rounds by beating a Portugal team that could be missing as many as four starters by the time kickoff takes place in Manaus on Sunday.
The Americans have long since put the victory against Ghana in the rear view mirror, with the one lingering memory being the fact that the U.S. has to play better on Sunday to ensure victory. Sloppy passing and an ineffective attack forced the Americans to hold on for dear life for much of the Ghana match, and if the U.S. can’t improve its possession game, then the Portuguese tandem of Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles will have more of the ball, and more chances to set up Ronaldo.
Michael Bradley was one of the players who struggled the most against Ghana, and as the most important midfielder on the U.S. team, he will need to recapture his usual top form if the Americans are going to beat Portugal. Bradley acknowledged on Friday that he didn’t have his best day against Ghana, but as we saw in the 2010 World Cup, Bradley has a track record of delivering in the second matches of World Cups.
The biggest question surrounding the U.S. team heading into Sunday is which forward Jurgen Klinsmann will call on to replace injured striker Jozy Altidore. Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson spoke to the media on Friday, and while the sense was that they didn’t know who was starting just yet, the feeling you get is that they are both ready if they are called on.
Johannsson seems like the better fit against Portugal given the fact his quickness and technical ability could help him shine against a Portugal defense missing its two best players, but Wondolowski is a better hold-up player, and is the one of the two who could come closest to giving the team a look similar to what Altidore provides as the target striker.
Klinsmann also has a decision to make about his midfield, where he could choose to start Graham Zusi in place of Alejandro Bedoya. Another scenario could see Klinsmann start Dempsey as a lone forward and giving Zusi and Bedoya starts in a 4-1-4-1 system. There isn’t a history of the U.S. team using this approach, but then the U.S. team hasn’t been left in a position without a target striker option like it currently finds itself in.
Lastly, the center back position bears watching, as Matt Besler figures to reprise his starting role after shaking off a sore hamstring. Ghana hero John Brooks filled in admirably for Besler, but a healthy Besler remains the preferred option for his speed and positioning. That said, Klinsmann could choose to rest Besler and give Brooks the start in Manaus, where a poor field surface could leave Besler vulnerable to an aggravation of his hamstring injury.
Those injury concerns for the U.S. pale in comparisons to what Portugal is facing, with Coentrao and forward Hugo Almeida out, and Pepe suspended, and Ronaldo favoring a sore knee. Throw in goalkeeper Rui Patricio reportedly carrying a knock, and starting central defender Bruno Alves missing training on Friday with a thigh injury, and the Americans could face a Portuguese defense featuring just one of its starters.
That sounds like a recipe for success for the U.S., but only if the Americans come to play on Sunday. Do that, and the celebration in Manaus could trump the one the U.S. enjoyed in Natal last week.