Garrett McInnis and Neil W. Blackmon
Sunday marks an important day in the history of US Soccer. There’s little doubt that this match is probably the most crucial in THIS year’s World Cup group stage. Even before the Ghana win, it was understood that getting points from the Germany match would be the most difficult proposition. With that understanding, winning the Ghana match looked almost necessary, and Jurgen Klinsmann emphasized this, calling the Black Stars match in Natal a “six pointer.”
Fast forward three glorious albeit costly points later, and Portugal. In the Jungle of Manaus. A wounded, desperate animal of Portugal who will be without defensive stalwart Pepe, attack-oriented fullback Fábio Coentrão, and burly attacker Hugo Almeida in the wake of a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Germany in Salvador that Portuguese media outlets called “a horror film.”
Portugal. Decisive swing match. Now or never for the Portuguese. A chance to advance from a Group of Death for the United States. It isn’t precisely the narrative we thought we’d see when we got to the Amazon, but if you wrote down a path for the USA out of Group G, this would have been it. In other words, from an American perspective, Portugal as swing match was always the logical narrative.
There are other reasons why this match matters so much. After breaking the record for ratings for avv bccer match shown stateside on cable television, it is clear that this may be the most watched match in United States Soccer history. Far from a Monday night time slot usually reserved by nightly news- one that still outdrew every game of the NBA Finals– Sunday’s match in the Amazon will be shown in near-primetime on a weekend night when more Americans are apt to turn on the tube. Considering the momentum with which the last match finished, you can bank on another television audience for this Sunday’s match-up. And though we’re past the point in time in American soccer when the performance of hte national team at the World Cup moves the meter for the sport in this country, a second consecutive match against a big time squad can only heighten interest in the sport going forward, and a victory can only generate more interest.
A win will mean almost certain progression to the knockout stages for the Yanks. A loss will create a world of doubt as to the ability of the side to move on. A draw still leaves the team in the driver’s seat with a lot of questions to play out. And all this will happen without the offensive anchor of the squad, Jozy Altidore, whose absence is without question a referendum on Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad selection. Without a like for like player on the roster, and without a player who can allow you to do alternative things that may offset Altidore’s absence, the Americans are pressed into finding a way.
There’s a narrative out there that “finding a way” is something precisely “American.” In truth, I’ve no idea what that means. Switzerland “found a way” against Ecuador. Ivory Coast “found a way” in this tournament against Japan. Costa Rica has certainly “found a way” in two stunning victories. The US have no patent or trademark for “finding a way” beyond a cultural yarn and because people kept saying so. But the Americans are gutty, no doubt. And the Americans should be brimming with confidence after vanquishing the demon of World Cups and Groups of Death past Monday night in Natal. And the Yanks should also, once again, be playing what is practically a “home game” from a World Cup perspective, with around 15,000 Americans expected to be on hand in Manaus, and with the footprint of these loyal fans showing everywhere in this odd town at the edge of a jungle, from the hotels to the hostels to the limited nightlife options. I Believe.
Now that we’ve established the immense importance of the match, let’s take a look at what we can expect to see.
Series: Sixth Meeting. Series Tied 2-2-1. The United States won the only previous match at a World Cup, 3-2 in Suwon, Korea in 2002.
That match was the first World Cup match for one DaMarcus Beasley and one Landon Donovan. One of those players is in Manaus. Just two years ago, you’d be laughed out of the room if you said it would be DaMarcus Beasley. Litmus test on what people see out of Donovan– the goal below. Is it a fortuitous bounce (non-believers) or a moment of brilliance (why isn’t he here again?)
Who started that goal sequence? The “fleet DaMarcus Beasley” of course.
What did that goal assure? A good chance at safe passage in a group of death, of course.
Portugal have never beaten the United States outside of Portugal.
Also of note: the U.S. have done, with caveat,well in second matches at the World Cup since 1990’s return to the world stage. In 1990, the college kids were game against the hosts in defeat. In 1994, Colombia happened. That victory? Twenty years to the DAY prior to happenings in Manaus. 1998 saw disaster but that’s the only non-1990 defeat in a second match at the World Cup for the US in the modern era. 2002 saw Brad Friedel’s heroism salvage a point against hosts South Korea; 2006 saw the US tie eventual champion Italy with nine men after questionable refereeing and the backheel that keeps on giving from Zaccardo; and 2010 saw Landon go top shelf and MB 90 roar in the comeback that was Coulibalied against Slovenia. The caveat: ONE WIN, and none outside of the United States. The US CAN end that stretch Sunday night.
Everybody’s Talking About…the Weather: Mid 80’s, chance of thunderstorms. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 10.
The weather is here. I wish it was beautiful.
Look. It’s hotter than the pick-your-other cliche blazes in Manaus. The temperature will be in the 80’s at kick but the heat index, which factors in humidity, will be around 100 degrees. If Fabian Johnson plays well, we’ll do our part and get rid of the Fabian Johnson “Misery Index.”
You shower in Manaus, walk outside a bit, and need to shower again. That’s the humidity’s effect. Need a more concrete example? Great.
Central Florida, which unlike say South Florida or South Texas along the Gulf Of Mexico, are comparable examples. In fact, Orlando and Gainesville, Florida have similar temperature to heat index rangers during their most hot months. Central Florida removes the sea breeze and simply places you in a low-latitude tropical environment with plenty of lakes and water but no sea breeze and places for the heat to go. Rain cools things off but steam immediately heats things back up. It’s the reason, for college football fans, that playing a football game at “The Swamp” in Gainesville is such a miserable endeavor for visiting teams. There are plenty of 90 degree, 105 Heat Index home games for the Gators in September where conditioning is immediately an issue and by the Fourth Quarter, the visiting team wilts, a sideline of hands on knees, cramps and vomiting players. And that’s with substitutions, 3-6 seconds of action and half a minute between plays. And “Cool Zones.”
Soccer has no such luxuries, as you know. Substitutions will be critical.
People laughed when Klinsmann questioned his teams fitness “in relation to other teams in the group” when camp opened. The comments were silly. The larger point wasn’t. The conditioned team, the team that “suffers most”, to retread the MB 90 quote used so liberally in other previews– that team will have an advantage.
Both teams are going to struggle mightily with the weather. It will take a lot of mental discipline to last for 90 minutes in this match.
But here’s some good news: Sunday’s projected temperature and heat index: 85 and 97– a match for the USMNT “Send Off Series” numbers in Jacksonville. There’s a reason US Soccer made that decision. They wanted to be ready.
What to watch from Portugal
That guy: Look….it ain’t a secret that all eyes are on Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s the winner of the Ballon D’Or and is playing the “Am I injured or am I not injured?” game with the media and coaching staffs. The Yanks are clearly preparing for him to play and I have very little doubt that he will. Should he not be healthy enough to start, the US’ defensive job becomes much simpler. Regardless, this preview will continue with the assumption he’ll be on the pitch.
If he’s playing, he draws a constant eye from our entire defense, most specifically the right side(Cristiano likes to sit on the left wing and then make in-curling runs that benefit his golden right foot). Having said that, if you have the ability to shut him down, you’ve caused a ton if issues with their entire offense. When asked Thursday about our approach to playing the Portuguese, Jermaine Jones had the somewhat timely reference to the San Antonio Spurs. I personally like the response, as clearly Ronaldo will be the best player on the pitch, though I do think collective action can do wonders to stifle the Portuguese attack. Clogging the interior of the field(thanks Beckerman) and putting a physical presence in Ronaldo’s face whenever he gets the ball will do wonders to create disjunction for their side.
There’s also risk involved when you defend Portugal by cutting off the ball before Ronaldo- because if it can fail if you’ve got Ronaldo in space from width, where he’s sill fairly devastating and where, he can either take you on one v. one (there isn’t anyone in the world better) or he can incut onto his right foot.
That said, the US benefit from two things.
One, Fábio Coentrão will not play. The right back usually makes the bombing overlaps for Portugal, increasing their ability to suck you out of the center. With him gone, there’s not a like-for-like player. In Coentrão’s stead will be André Almeida, a lanky player and converted midfielder thrust into a big spot, who will be far more reluctant to challenge the US far up the field and offers little of the positional-savvy and recovery awareness of Coentrão. That’s a big loss, because it makes it a bit easier for the US to provide help if and when Kyle Beckerman, sitting in the right channel, is beaten off the dribble. Geoff Cameron and whoever the US deploy at RB (probably Fabian Johnson) will be more capable of helping without the Coentrão threat on the overlap.
Second, Portugal will miss Hugo Almeida, the best of their stable of rather pedestrian forwards. This is particularly true if their manager, Paulo Bento, known for his “calmness” (read: tactical rigidity and lineup inflexibility) opts to deploy Éder, a preferred face in qualification, in the injured Hugo Almeida’s stead. While neither Éder or Hugo Almeida are dominant forwards, the other option, Heider Postiga, is probably the closest to a strong test for the United States, because he’s got the longest standing relationship and understanding of how Ronaldo prefers to play, and he’s got the best head of the group.Azerbaijan and now Ghana (John Brooks!!!) should have you comfortable with how the Yanks attack on set pieces, but Mexico in Arizona and a cycle of evidence indicate the US have still struggled as a defensive set piece team and can punish you on a set piece. Postiga, if nothing else, fits this bill.
So yes, it starts and ends with Ronaldo. But..Having said that, it’s not as if the rest of Portugal’s squad are incapable. Nani will be a terror down our left side if DeMarcus Beasley isn’t on top of his game. (Yes, I still think DMB starts). And while Beasley deserves acclaim for defending both well-placed balls far post against Ghana with aplomb Monday in Natal, his ability to track back to that spot and defend it well positionally remains a question mark. Portugal have the talent, in both Ronaldo and Nani, to get the ball to that spot.
In other words, we’ll see plenty of skill and a squad very capable of shredding us to pieces should our defensive effort be disjointed.
In the center of the field, Portugal have one player who can dice you a bit, João Moutinho. The remaining players (some combination of Raul Meireles, William Carvalho and Miguel Veloso), are more defensive-oriented mids who aren’t going to be able to pry the US out of a deeper-lying position. Moutinho covers a great amount of ground in Bento’s 4-3-3, and he’s capable of beating you in the midfield zones with through balls if you lack ball pressure. In Natal, we saw MB 90 or Jermaine Jones harangue Andre Ayew or Muntari a good amount when they received the ball looking to distribute through the center. Expect more of that on Moutinho Sunday evening.
A Squad In Crisis: There is a thin line in international soccer between being a wounded desperate team and being a team headed off the rails fast. France 2010 is the prime example of the latter. We’ll find out which one the Iberians are rather quickly Sunday night. If the US can grab another early goal, the Portuguese may resort to infighting and anger instead of focusing on the task at hand. The US need to be mindful of this from the get go.
Besides the simple fact that Portugal lost it’s last game, they’ll also be sans key members of their squad including the aforementioned Fábio Coentrão and Pepe (AKA, the two best parts of their defense). Pepe will be replaced, in all likelihood, by Richard Costa, meaning the Iberians will face the US with a proven, but aging CB pair with Bruno Alves the other starter.
Costa is a big drop off from Pepe talent wise, but he also reduces a concern that TYAC had (and the great guys at Total Soccer Show) in the build-up to the tournament- that Clint Dempsey could lose his cool after being antagonized by the volatile, sometimes “cheap” tricks of Pepe, who is especially good at baiting players into silly retaliation fouls and cards. Given Dempsey’s volatile temper the last few months, this was a legitimate concern, and is one that you can feel a bit better about with Pepe out. Little things like this matter, especially in a universe where the US now play with no backup forward thanks to Klinsmann’s squad selection.
Portuguese desperation also means the Iberians may chase the first goal, knowing the importance of a good start for their mentality. I expect them to attack the United States from the kickoff and not let up until something changes in the matchup. This means the US will have their chances as the game opens up, and as noted, an early goal would do wonders for the Red, White and Blue.
What to see from the Yanks?
This is a good match-up for the Yanks. We talked to Bora Milutinović, who coached the 1994 US World Cup team, two weeks ago, and asked him which of the “Group of Death” matches he felt the US could most reasonably win. It’s hard to take the charming Milutinović seriously sometimes, especially when he kisses your hand and spins yarns about how Qatar 2022 will be “the greatest World Cup ever”, but he was frank about the US having a great chance against the Iberians:
“You know what I think, I expect the US to play, but the group is very strong. The group is a “Small” World Cup between four very good teams, Ghana, Portugal, Germany,” Milutinović said. But who does the US have the best chance to win against? “The day they play, in Manaus, in my experiences with Costa Rica, or the US beating Colombia, on one day– the US can shut down a great player. They have the mentality and pieces to exploit Portugal. Much more so than Ghana, who can defeat you in so many ways. Portugal play one way. They don’t change. They are a very good team, but the US have the personnel in the center of the field to deal with the way Portugal want to play,” Milutinović said.
He was wrong about Ghana. Let’s hope he’s right this time.
First of all, it’s important to watch what Jurgen does with the offensive side since Jozy Altidore won’t be available. I expect Dempsey to play a more offensive position and then have either Johannsson or Wondo in support to provide more balance. It’s possible that we sacrifice a striker for another midfielder but either way, I foresee a more fluid group with less definition in positioning. Whether we play with a ‘single’ hold up forward in Johannsson, or whether we play with a more flat 4-4-2, there should be greater balance than the majority of the Ghana match. Here at TYAC, we aren’t ever remotely thinking our preview is the only one you should read. For two tremendous preview pieces with longer tactical suggestions for the US, read our friends at The Shin Guardian here and American Soccer Now’s up and comer Blake Thomsen’s stirring preview here.
Make no mistake: the US missed Altidore greatly when he left the Ghana match and they’ll miss him again against Portugal. For some reference: the US had 81 passes in the final third against the Black Stars, completing 43. Of those, only 50 came after Altidore’s exit in the 23rd minute. Of those, only 26 were completed. This means that the US completed almost half of its total completed passes in the final third prior to Altidore’s exit. So the US, despite Johannsson’s admirable work rate, was markedly less threatening when Altidore exited the match.
To compensate for that against Portugal and their replacement-laden back four, TYAC expect Klinsmann to utilize Dempsey up top with Johannsson behind, counting on Dempsey to play back to the goal a bit and test Bruno Alves, allowing Johannsson to make sweeping runs in the channel space behind. This writer pegged Johannsson to be the player who creates a household name for himself in this World Cup, alla Landon 2002, prior to the tournament: the thinking here is the Portugal match is where that happens. Johannsson would also be tasked with providing relief to Dempsey if slotted behind him– but that’s an upgrade to him being the lone hold up player and if Dempsey does his job- they’d have outlets with Graham Zusi/Ale Bedoya wide and Michael Bradley making menacing trailer runs (Slovenia, 2010 redux?) behind.
Make no mistake, either: the US need more from Michael Bradley than they got in Natal.
One caveat: it’s also possible, and would make some sense, if the US ditch the 4-4-2 rather than flatten it, and play their traditional 4-2-3-1. In this set up, Zusi replaces Bedoya and Johannsson starts out wider, allowing him a starting point for his sweeping runs and giving the US a player, in Zusi, who can deliver crosses from width, where the US should feel comfortable operating against the positionally insecure Almeida and the attack-minded fullback Pereira. The 4-2-3-1 is probably also a safe formation to counter in, particularly with Pereira bombing forward even more than usual in the absence of Coentrão. Catch Pereira out and their will be abundant space in which to counter down the flank, and Portugal will have to rely on Meireles and Moutinho covering much more than realistically hoping Nani can provide defensive shelter.
Next, while discipline in the back four was crucial in the first match, awareness and discipline may be even more important in this one. Nani is unbelievably athletic and quick and Cristiano Ronaldo needs almost no space to get a clear shot off. I suspect we will continue to try to clog the defensive midfield and force Ronaldo and Nani out wide with the hope that their crosses and attempts to cut inward will result in errant and inaccurate attacks. Yes- we realize hoping that Ronaldo incuts cause failure is risky, but with Coentrão absent the US should be able to send help faster. The loss of their target forward, Hugo Almeida helps along with the unlucky problems with their defensive stalwarts, so long as Geoff Cameron continues to dominate the air on set pieces (4 set piece clearances vs. Ghana).
The good news? Geoff Cameron told TYAC prior to the tournament that he “planned on playing like the 6’3, 200 pound, 95 percent muscle, zero body fat machine that I am” at the World Cup. He got off to a good start.
Finally, I expect a concerted effort for the Yanks to attack down the right side. With Pepe out(Red Card) and Almeida making a World Cup debut, (the Portuguese used the same 4 backline for their entire World Cup qualifying effort)– it only makes sense to challenge the newcomers. With the athletic and aggressive Alejandro Bedoya or the vastly underrated Graham Zusi, and a charging Fabian Johnson, there is a real possibility that the US catches the Portuguese in a problem situation. Pounding these insecurities will only open up opportunities up the middle for Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones.
Portuguese Player to Watch: Nani aka Dwayne Wade
Down the right flank, he can take advantage of a classic USA weakness, left back. While I attest that Demarcus Beasley wasn’t as bad as most Americans claimed, he is still a makeshift left back and no match for a world class right winger. Nani has the speed, skill and class to embarrass anything we have to offer. Let’s hope he’s off his game.
Jermaine Jones “Spurs” analogy is even more apt when discussing Nani, who is perhaps even more critical than given the situation surrounding Ronaldo’s knee. The Spurs were able to beat the Heat largely due to the fact that the Heat could not get supplemental help for Lebron James from the place it usually comes, Dwayne Wade.
Nani, we wrote a month before the tournament, is Portugal’s Wade to Ronaldo’s James. Like Wade, the speedy Nani isn’t the player he once was, but he’s still more than capable of exploiting space and delivering a devastating pass, even with defenders closing. To defeat Portugal, the US will have to contain Ronaldo, but also not get beat by Nani.
USA Player to Watch: Tim Howard
Howard was brilliant in Natal, putting in a performance that will be measured against the best by US goalkeepers ever at a World Cup: Meola vs. Colombia, Friedel vs. Korea and Mexico in 2002, Howard vs. England in 2010. There’s no question the US needed it. The big test begins now: can Howard put in another?
US goalkeepers have long been the envy of the world. It’s a factory. But oddly, it is a factory that hasn’t always produced performances aligned with talent level at World Cups. Howard, playing hurt, was decisively weak against Ghana in the knock out stage in 2010, getting beat near post on a Boateng shot he’s saved countless times at Everton or Manchester United. The US, we argued before the tournament, was due for a goalkeeper to have a tenacious World Cup. Howard can cash in on that prediction with another strong night in Manaus.
Garrett McInnis: USA 2- 2 POR
I think Portugal comes out swinging but doesn’t have the firepower to hang with the USA. A draw does very little for the Portuguese and in the end, the draw puts the Iberians in an extremely tough situation for next week.
Neil W. Blackmon: USA 2- 1 POR
Sticking with my guns. Felt the US could and would win this match before the tournament. Think they’ll get it done, and advance to the knock out stages, Sunday night.