American advantage vs. Portugal
THE THING ABOUT a World Cup is that each match generally takes on more significance as the tournament progresses.
So while the United States cleared a major hurdle with its tournament-opening win over Ghana, it simply raised the stakes for tomorrow’s match against Portugal.
Beat Portugal and the USA could advance to the Round of 16 with a game to spare if Group G favorite Germany beats Ghana today as expected.
Of all the teams that have already advanced to the second stage of the tournament after two games or those who could do so this weekend, the United States was not expected to be one of them.
Many prognosticators had it as a tossup between Ghana and the USA as to which nation would finish last in Group G with Germany and Portugal expected to advance, but with the Americans beating Ghana, 2-1, and Germany thumping Portugal, 4-0, the tides have shifted.
With three points secured and a traditionally erratic Portugal side embarrassed, confused and desperate, Team USA could not have predicted a better scenario for its second game in Brazil.
When the USA and Portugal kick off tomorrow (6 p.m., ESPN) in the Amazon jungle city of Manaus, the Americans will know exactly what is at stake.
Germany and Ghana play today (3 p.m. on ESPN).
If Ghana was to pull the upset, the USA, with a victory over Portugal, would only need a tie in the final game against Germany to shockingly win Group G.
"There is a good energy within this group," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said to ESPN, "but we are also really understanding of the fact that one game does not mean anything.
"We have to take advantage of the good position that we put ourselves in."
Ideally, you would want to see all of the top players healthy and available for a match with so much at stake, but both teams will be without key performers.
The United States won’t have striker Jozy Altidore, who strained his left hamstring in the Ghana match. And Portugal will not have the services of star defender Pepe, who is serving a red card suspension for head-butting Thomas Muller of Germany.
Of even more significance for Portugal is the playing status of superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been nursing a shaky left knee.
With so much on the line for Portugal, Ronaldo is expected to play, but the Spanish digital newspaper <CF5002>El Confidencial</CF> reported that a Portuguese doctor warned Ronaldo that he was risking permanent injury to his knee if he continued to try and play through it during the World Cup.
Ronaldo wore a knee brace in practice yesterday.
Not to compare Altidore to Ronaldo, who is one of the top three players in the world, but some are saying that Altidore’s absence will be as big of an impact on the USA as Ronaldo’s absence would be on Portugal.
Clearly, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann would like to have all of his players healthy and fit so that he can put out the lineup he most wants to against Portugal, but injuries happen during World Cups and the team must play on.
The likely candidates to replace Altidore are 23-year-old Aron Johannsson and 31-year-old Chris Wondolowski.
Although he does have the size and strength of Altidore to play the role of a "target" forward, Johannsson, who is from Iceland but had USA eligibility because he was born in Mobile, Ala., has proved that he can score in the big leagues.
This season while playing for the AZ Alkmaar of the Eredivisie (Dutch League), Johannsson had 26 goals in 56 matches.
Granted, Johannsson did not do much against Ghana’s physical defense, but the suddenness of Altidore’s injury left the entire United States attack out of sorts.
Johannsson might be the best fit to run up front with Clint Dempsey.
Wondolowski, of the San Jose Earthquakes in MLS, is a story of American determination. He did not make his national team debut until 2011 and as late as last summer was still considered a fringe long shot to make the World Cup roster.
But Wondolowski caught Klinsmann’s eye by scoring seven goals in four matches last July, including six during the USA’s successful run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup title.
He scored against South Korea and Mexico in friendlies this year.
All of these decisions will come down to which formation Klinsmann thinks will be most effective against Portugal. He may stick with the 4-4-2 he played against Ghana or may shift to one using five midfielders.
"Whenever [Klinsmann’s\] ready to let us know who’s going to start, then he’ll do it," Johannsson said. "We just have to wait until he makes his decision."
How ever Klinsmann decides to play it, the USA will have had several days to work things out together so the transition from playing without Altidore against Portugal should go smoother than it did against Ghana.