Against Portugal, USMNT Showed They Can Play, Not Just Survive, at the World Cup

Janusz MichallikAnalyst INovember 1, 2016

United States' Clint Dempsey (8) celebrates with teammate Michael Bradley after scoring his side's second goal during the group G World Cup soccer match between the United States and Portugal at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Exhausted? I hear you. That's exactly how I feel after the United States' 2-2 draw against Portugal on Sunday night at the World Cup. Like me, I'm sure most of you went from elation to exhaustion in the space of a few seconds in this game.

Now just imagine how the players feel, and with that in mind, be careful in how you truly assess what happened in the 95th minute, given these conditions.

First and foremost, you have to admire these players for how they performed in these conditions. This was the venue, you'll remember, where Italy's Claudio Marchisio said (via the Associated Press, h/t ABC News) that he felt like he was having "hallucinations." I'm full of respect for the game that both teams played all the way until the 95th minute.

With that said, mistakes were made. Unfortunately, that late in the game, with so much on the line and in conditions like those in Manaus, mental mistakes can and do happen. But I would be really careful to lay the blame solely on Michael Bradley for the costly giveaway that led to Portugal's equalizer.

Leo Correa/Associated Press

Bradley still didn't play to the level that we expect of him—and more importantly, the level he expects of himself—but he was a little bit better than in the first game against Ghana. That said, he got his pocket picked in the 95th minute, albeit 70 yards from his own goal.

If we're going to praise this team for everything good it's done so far—and lately I've been a bit rah-rah around here—we do have to look at this as a team effort on both sides of the ball. As I mentioned, the play happened 70 yards away from the U.S. goal, with six or seven U.S. players still in position to deal with it. By the time Silvestre Varela scored, uncontested, to level the game, a couple of U.S. players were ball-watching.

As ESPN's Taylor Twellman noted, at the time of Bradley's giveaway, the U.S. was still in good position to stop Portugal:

That one cross aside, the U.S. limited Cristiano Ronaldo to very little for most of the game. But even though he was not at his best, and clearly not at 100 percent, he showed his class when it mattered most. That one moment, that one cross—that's what the best players do. Lionel Messi has done it twice already for Argentina without being anywhere near his best, and now Ronaldo has managed to keep his team alive with a moment of his own.

Maybe we still have a lot of learning to do on the world stage, and Ronaldo's goal is certainly a lesson we will take into the future. But what we've shown so far in this World Cup, for me, has been remarkable.

Jermaine Jones played well for the U.S. against Portugal.
Jermaine Jones played well for the U.S. against Portugal.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

I'm going to stay consistent in my cheerleading, because this team, quite simply, hasn't let me down. I always felt that we could get a result against Ghana, and I also thought we could get something out of this game. I even thought that this group was more manageable, and less deadly, than it seemed at first. To be fair, I wasn't sure if there was another level with this team. But this game showed me that we can not only be proud of this team because of the results, but because of how it plays.

Speaking of great play, Jermaine Jones not only scored a wonderful goal, but he also continued to prove that he's much more than just a grinder in the midfield. Once again, he owned his position and the space around him, regardless of where that space was. And once again, he was dominant on both sides of the ball. 

Tactically, there were a number of positives here. Clint Dempsey has never really thrived playing on his own up top with the national team. But against Portugal, Dempsey showed what we already knew—that he's a warrior, that he can lead the line and that he can embrace his job as captain by carrying the team.

In the wide areas, I thought both Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi struggled in the 4-2-3-1 system. But the absence of Fabio Coentrao, as expected, allowed Fabian Johnson to show his quality in terms of going forward. 

I continue to question our midfield triangle in this system, as well as playing Bradley at the top of it. Looking ahead to the Germany game, I think it would be wise to consider playing Bradley deeper alongside Kyle Beckerman. In turn, Jurgen Klinsmann could take the shackles off Jones by putting him at the top of the triangle instead. Jones' drive toward the goal is insatiable, and he prefers to play that way anyway. With his work rate and range of play, he has got enough to come back defensively if needed and help out as well. 

The U.S. contained Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo for most of the game.
The U.S. contained Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo for most of the game.Paulo Duarte/Associated Press

Without Jozy Altidore in the side—and with Klinsmann apparently lacking faith in Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson—Jones would provide a very real attacking threat and additional help to Dempsey. Germany's back four is far from invulnerable, as we've seen in recent months, and in my opinion, the U.S. team will have to score in order to have a realistic chance to get a result on Thursday and get us out of this group. With Bedoya and Zusi being rather disappointing, I see Jones as the only player capable of providing that threat. We have to get him closer to goal and let him loose. 

Germany will obviously be the biggest threat the U.S. has faced so far, and if we thought the effort against Portugal was great, it could take twice as much against Germany. Certainly the recovery will be very difficult, as you have to imagine that this game will take a lot out of team. And that's not even to mention that Germany will have one more day to recover after the U.S. played in such a difficult environment. 

I don't want to be so naive as to think it's impossible, but I don't see this Germany game as one where both teams will settle for the draw that would get them through to the next round. Klinsmann himself said as much after the game, telling the Toronto Sun's Kurtis Larson that the U.S. will go for the win:

For one thing, I don't think the U.S. is accustomed to controlling a game like this, against a team like Germany. For another, the Germans have a number of questions after what I thought was a poor performance against Ghana. What's more, winning the group with two draws and a victory would not exactly give Germany great momentum and confidence going forward into the knockout stages.

But let's leave all that aside for now. For me, the most important thing about the Portugal game, after the performance against Ghana, was to show that we could really play—and not just survive. Also important to me was the attitude. Once we equalized, that wasn't enough. This wasn't a team that was ready to accept the result at the time of Jones' goal. In true American fashion, we went for the jugular.

Normally we would take a result like this against Portugal. But in the end, I think we're all disappointed after coming so close to what would have been a wonderful win.

For me, the fact that we have that feeling at all is actually huge progress.


Polish-born Janusz Michallik played 44 times for the United States national team, and in MLS for Columbus Crew and New England Revolution. Now a respected commentator and pundit for ESPN, Fox, SiriusXM FC, OneWorldSports and others, Janusz will be covering matters USMNT for B/R during the World Cup.