At some point during the broadcast of the United States critical 2014 World Cup game vs. Portugal, ESPN will reference the last time these two nations played. Let’s be more realistic, the United States’ 3-2 win in at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea will probably be mentioned early and often during ESPN’s one-hour pregame show, conjuring hazy memories of John O’Brien and diving Brian McBride headers. Expect the booth of Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman to make reference to the 2002 encounter, which saw the U.S. jump out to a shock 1-0 lead after four minutes. Hell, Darke called the game for highlights package after the fact. As far as performances and results go, it’s one of the finest moments in American soccer history — the first 45 minutes engineered by Bruce Arena’s team, anyways.
However, here are the only tangible connections to the match 12 years ago in Suwon, South Korea:
- American left back DaMarcus Beasley played in the 2002 match, then a spry 20-year old midfielder.
- Current Portugal coach Paulo Bento played in the match, coming on as a second-half sub.
- Portugal will again feature a former Balon d’Or winner, in 2002 it was Luis Figo; Sunday it will be Cristiano Ronaldo.
Looking for some more relevance to give that random World Cup encounter from 12 years ago some more context? The American win in Suwon was the first over a European team in the “modern era” (1990 World Cup onward). Over the last six World Cups the United States is a paltry 1-8-4 against European teams. If you dismiss the 1990/1998/2006 tournaments that were played on European soil, the record is a little better at 1-2-3. Four years ago in South Africa, the U.S. drew both England and Slovenia.
These stats, coupled with the United’s 0-3-1 record (post 1990) after a World Cup win, doesn’t inspire much confidence ahead of playing Portugal.
A counterpoint point to that argument? European teams are only 10-12-3 at the 2014 World Cup and only half of those wins (Croatia vs. Cameroon; Netherlands vs. Australia; France vs. Honduras; Belgium vs. Russia; and Switzerland vs. Ecuador) have come against non-UEFA opposition. CONCACAF has already claimed a European scalp, too, in the form of Costa Rica’s 1-0 win over Italy on Friday.
Fast forward to Sunday in Manaus and it goes to show — even with three points in the bank following Monday’s rousing win over Ghana — the U.S. still has much work to do with its remaining Group G games with Portugal and Germany. Jason Lisk outlined all the scenarios on Saturday after Ghana drew Germany. A draw suits Jurgen Klinsmann’s team well vs. Portugal, but leaves the door ajar as it would need to get something vs. Germany in the final group game on Thursday. However, win vs. Portugal and the U.S. is through no matter what it does against Germany. Two draws in its remaining games put the U.S. and Germany both into the Round of 16.
In short, the U.S. are through with five or more points, in limbo with four and out with three.
[RELATED: The Best Goals, From Free Kicks to Own Goals, in United States World Cup History]
Ultimately, although there is a history between the United States and Portugal worth remembering (and trumpeting), it won’t mean all that much once the ball is put into play after the opening whistle at the Arena da Amazônia. The U.S. most certainly will not have the element of surprise this time.
What to do with Ronaldo?: Cristiano Ronaldo — when 100 percent fit — is among the best players in the world. There’s no sense ranking him. He and Lionel Messi (and perhaps Luis Suarez, of late) are in their own class, a stratosphere of greatness that few mere mortals achieve. Of course Ronaldo enters this game off a bitch-fest vs. Germany and swirling rumors about his health although everyone in the Portugal camp now says he’s 100 percent.
If Ronaldo is at his peak physically, often times there’s not much you can do to stop him. The best course of action is being smart in possession and denying Portugal the chance to break through the left channel — the space on the field that produced Andre Ayew’s goal on Monday — or middle through Ronaldo. If Ronaldo doesn’t have the ball, he can’t hurt you, duh. Granted, is the U.S. suited for a possession-based game vs. Portugal?
Even though it knows it can advance with two wins, Bento’s team is probably more content sitting back and defending and pouncing on American mistakes. Does this mean Jurgen Klinsmann opts for a better passer like Mix Diskerud in the starting lineup and scraps the 4-4-2 diamond midfield?
One thing that’s clear, although Fabian Johnson has proven to be a fine offensive weapon getting into the attack from right back, those forays forward probably aren’t going to happen if he’s tied up marking Ronaldo. Whoever the U.S. opts for on the right of midfield is going to have 90 tireless minutes of running.
I’ve seen some theories floated about starting 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin at right back, who given his speed could harry Ronaldo allowing Johnson to move forward and attack more. It sounds nice on paper, but given the way FIFA refs operate, it’s doubtful Yedlin is going to get the benefit of the doubt in any potential challenges with Ronaldo. You can’t risk giving him a chance to beat you on a direct free kick on goal.
Oh and on top of that, the U.S. centerbacks better have their marking assignments figured out since Ronaldo is lethal drifting into the box and scoring on headers. And if the U.S. devotes too much time to trying to handcuff Ronaldo, Portugal has other players who can drift forward and do damage.
Other than that, it should be a piece of cake handling Ronaldo, however fit he is come game time. Maybe the best bet is to hope Ronaldo gets frustrated and lets his temper take him out of the match.
Humidity hangover?: Only a handful of teams looked better in their second game of the 2014 tournament — Colombia and France (and now Algeria vs. South Korea) come to mind. Croatia, too, although its 4-0 win came vs. a self-destructing Cameroon team. Germany, as a prime example, looked much worse in its second match drawing Ghana 2-2 — although in reality that’s more of a credit to to the quality of Ghana.
We know the U.S. enters this game banged up. Jozy Altidore won’t play. Clint Dempsey will play with a broken nose. Couple that with an emotionally and physically draining game in Natal on Monday, expect a much different type of game Sunday in the Amazon.
Figure on a cagey first half — save a colossal error — with both teams cautious about allowing an early goal that would result in extended periods of all-out attack or dug-in defense, which are difficult to achieve over 90 minutes in the heat and humidity. Without Altidore, the U.S.’s traditonal defend-counter attack plan might also need to be scrapped.
Conversely, Uruguay looked poor losing to 3-1 Costa Rica in its first match and came back with a 2-1 win, albeit against England. Uruguay leaned on Suarez. Will Portugal do the same with its superstar?
Ready, set pieces: Throughout most of the 21st century the U.S. has made a habit of scoring on set pieces, especially defenders. Former captain Carlos Bocanegra was noted for this ability and scored 14 times in his international career — a total that would only trail the totals of Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Beasley on the 2014 World Cup roster. John Brooks’ goal from a corner on Monday was the first scored by an American defender in the modern, post-1990 World Cup era.
Portugal will be without Pepe and potentially its other starting center back, Bruno Alves, in Manaus. Portugal allowed a headed goal off a corner to Mats Hummels in its first game. The U.S. could exploit this in Manaus, although it’s a much more likely scenario if Graham Zusi is on the field given his delivery on corners.
Tinker Tailor Jurgen Spy: Losing Altidore doesn’t allow Klinsmann much wiggle room with the lineup. A defensive-minded 4-2-3-1 formation with Graham Zusi starting in place of Altidore seems prudent vs. Portugal, although the options to play the lone forward — Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson — don’t seem capable isolated alone to help start the counter attack. Is sacrificing the spine of Kyle Beckerman-Jermaine Jones for a more pass-friendly Diskerud worth the gamble? As the World Cup has shown, notably Belgium and Argentina, you need capable wide players, but not players shoe-horned into uncomfortable wide roles. Jones, though not a natural wide player, might be the physical presence to harass Ronaldo sufficiently (and thanklessly).
[Update — Klinsmann went for the 4-2-3-1, bringing on Zusi and leaving Dempsey as the lone forward. Alejandro Bedoya draws the short straw on the right having to hang with Ronaldo.]
It’s doubtful even the most ardent, face-painting members of the American Outlaws envisioned a scenario when the World Cup draw came out in December that the United States would be the first team to qualify out of Group G — ahead of Germany, no less. That’s what happens with a win. Simple as that. No need to worry about scenarios or goal difference or a span of hypotheticals.
Yes, we’ve seen plenty of false starts and the U.S. record following wins at the World Cup isn’t very good.
By the same token, the 2014 World Cup has been wildly entertaining and consistently unpredictable. The U.S. advancing into the Round of 16 with a game to spare would fit in line with that theme, as crazy as it sounds to read. If the U.S. gets a victory in Manaus, expect even crazier statements (and dreams) to develop over the coming days.