In the second game of their “group of death” at the World Cup next summer in Brazil, the United States men’s national team will face Portugal and their megastar Cristiano Ronaldo.
As points in this group—which also includes Ghana and Germany—will be scarce, the U.S. will need to head into the game looking for at least a draw, even if the U.S. happens to beat Ghana in their opening game.
Portugal is ranked fifth in the world and led by likely 2013 Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. So, is there any way the U.S. can stop them?
Since the return of DaMarcus Beasley to the USMNT this spring, the question among U.S. fans—whether on the web, Twitter or in person—has been the same. “Can Beasley really be trusted when the U.S. faces top competition?”
Since March, Beasley has become the first-choice left-back for the U.S. with Fabian Johnson being deployed almost exclusively as a midfielder over that same period. However, few believe that Beasley can handle anything other than middling CONCACAF opposition, and a potential matchup between Beasley and Ronaldo is a nightmare scenario for U.S. fans.
It’s not meant to be disrespectful to Beasley, who has always been a loyal servant to the USMNT and clearly gives it his all each and every time he plays for the team. It’s simply a realistic appraisal of the situation.
Ronaldo can line up on either the right or the left wing, so the point may be moot, but Fabian Johnson must be the starter at left-back when the U.S. takes on Portugal. The fact is, it’s entirely plausible that no one can stop Ronaldo, but at the very least, Johnson has experience playing against some of the best wingers in the world in the Bundesliga.
Johnson may not be enough, but he’s the best chance the U.S. has got.
Since Klinsmann took over the USMNT, he has repeatedly promised to bring forth a more attractive style of play and the U.S. has put much more of an emphasis on possessing the ball.
However, one wonders, against Portugal, will that even be possible?
Portugal boasts a midfield full of stars including, among others, Nani, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles. Klinsmann will have a difficult decision ahead of him. Should he trust his five-man midifield (likely Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Graham Zusi) to hold possession and limit Portugal’s chances going forward? Or, should Klinsmann concede that the U.S. cannot possibly win the possession battle and instead bunker in?
Trying to hold possession presents two big problems. First of all, it’s entirely unclear whether or not it would work. Second, if the U.S. does try to work the ball up the field and squanders possession cheaply (certainly not an implausible scenario), it will be open to dangerous counterattacks.
Considering the U.S.’s personnel, a bunker in strategy seems the better choice. While everyone wants to see the U.S. develop a more attractive style of play, in this instance, being pragmatic is more important—and more likely to work.
Jermaine Jones, despite his inconsistent performances, is best when he stays back, and Michael Bradley has proved repeatedly that he is a great destroyer as well. With those two protecting the U.S. back line, not to mention two unproven center-backs, the U.S. is more likely to succeed.
When the U.S. beat Spain in 2009, it did so by playing great help defense. The center-backs covered for each other, the holding midfielders and the outside backs. The outside backs covered for the outside midfielders and the center-backs. The holding midfielders covered for holes all over the field, and the outside midfielders covered for the outside backs. And everyone sacrificed their body when needed.
Regardless of what side Ronaldo plays on when the U.S. plays Portugal, everyone will need to cover for each other. He is simply too good to be stopped by one man. Klinsmann needs to make sure that the outside midfielders he selects for the Portugal game can be counted on for their defensive prowess as much their attacking skill.
A good choice for Ronaldo’s side of the field at outside midfielder would be Graham Zusi. While there are still segments of the U.S. fanbase not entirely convinced Zusi is a top player, he demonstrated clearly in the Mexico game last March that he can be counted on 100 percent for his defensive effort. Against Portugal, the U.S. will need that level of defensive commitment.
The one issue not yet explored is who plays right-back? And to be honest, Klinsmann doesn’t have any sure-fire answers.
Geoff Cameron is currently the best option the U.S. has at the position, but he certainly is far from ideal. His size matches up favorably with Ronaldo and his lanky frame may give him a slight advantage 1 v. 1 over the other potential U.S. defenders, but Cameron is not a shifty player and Ronaldo is great on the dribble.
On his best day, Steve Cherundolo may be able to matchup with Ronaldo, but Cherundolo hasn’t played regularly in over a year. And while many USMNT fans want to believe that Eric Lichaj is the answer, he has been benched for two consecutive games in the English Championship—not exactly inspiring news.
Brad Evans is a Klinsmann favorite, but he has struggled against CONCACAF competition. DeAndre Yedlin is inexperienced and far too weak protecting the back post in the air—an area Ronaldo is extremely good at attacking.
At right-back, the U.S. may simply not have an answer.
The U.S. does have a number of factors working in its favor against Portugal. The game is in Manaus—the least hospitable environment in Brazil. The U.S. players will be more accustomed to playing in these less-than-ideal conditions than the Portuguese.
The Portuguese have also showed recently that their defense, even with its superstars, can be beaten. In their home-and-away legs during World Cup qualifying, they gave up a goal to Luxembourg, three to Northern Ireland and four to Israel. If the U.S. can put together a good day and make the most of its chances, there’s no reason to believe the U.S. can’t score two goals.
Combine that with a good day from the U.S. defense and Tim Howard, as well as an off day from Ronaldo, and the U.S. could be well on its way.
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