Preview: U.S. Men’s National Team take on Portugal

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

By PATRICK MacDONALD
Staff Writer

The U.S. Men’s National Team has long sought the type of victory that will transform them from perennial underdog to a respected international force.

What better time than now? And what better opponent than the fourth ranked team in the World — Portugal.

The Portuguese are led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. His presence alone would usually strike fear into any opponent, however, his health is a big question mark coming into this match. Behind him is a squad that has been devastated by injuries and hampered by a Pepe red card. To make matters worse, recent history shows that Portugal needed a playoff to qualify for this World Cup as well.

That is not the picture of stability, making this team ripe for the taking.

And what of superstar Ronaldo? Let’s say he’s 100% healthy, which remains unlikely. Players of his caliber still need to receive the ball to score. Real Madrid is very good at that, but Madrid the Portuguese National team is not. Ronaldo’s International strike rate does not match the one he has in club competition. He has two goals in World Cup competition against powerhouse teams Iran and North Korea.

Ronaldo is one of, if not the best player in the world when he gets service, but how the ball gets to him with a decimated backline and a weakened forward corps. remains to be seen.

Like so many matches in the modern game, this one will be played out in the midfield. The great news for American fans is that Michael Bradley likely got his worst game out of his system against Ghana, as did the entire National team. If Beckerman and Jones continue to play as well as they have, then the U.S. should give Portugal problems in the midfield and starve Ronaldo of dangerous touches.

For all the talk about Portugal’s injury issues, the U.S. has a taste of it as well. After getting through World Cup warmups healthy, the U.S. finally got bit by the injury bug, losing Jozy Altidore during the start of the Ghana match. Without him, the U.S. has no target striker.

As discussed on these very pages, it won’t be the first — or last — time Klinsmann has been forced into being creative in order to fill gaps. He did so when Altidore was out of form prior to the Hex. He did so when he brought in Brad Evans to shore up the backline. He will do so again. If history is any indicator, his change will probably be a head scratcher at the start, but it’ll work better than expected. That seems to be the unpredictable way of Jurgen Klinsmann’s management.

Then there are the intangibles which have little to any effect on this match, but are still interesting to consider. This has been a strange World Cup, filled with upsets and tight matches. Who had Spain and England already eliminated before playing a third game? Who had Costa Rica with six points and qualification after two matches? Clearly, anything can happen.

However, it is difficult to find a scenario where the Portuguese can properly utilize the talent of Ronaldo behind a side that is missing Pepe and Fabio Coentrao, and possibly starting injured players Rui Patricio and Hugo Almeida.

PROJECTED USMNT LINEUP (4-2-3-1):

Dempsey
Zusi – Bradley – Bedoya
Jones – Beckerman
Beasley – Besler – Cameron – Johnson
Howard

PROJECTED PORTUGAL LINEUP (4-3-3):

Ronaldo – Postiga – Nani
Moutinho – Veloso – Meireles
Almeida – Alves – Costa – Perreira
Patricio

WORLD CUP HISTORY:  The last time these two sides faced was in 2002, under very similar circumstances.  Portugal were all but assumed the Group D favorites, but wound up falling to the United States 3-2 in one of the most shocking results of the tournament.

BATTLE TO WATCH: Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Jermaine Jones
Jermaine Jones played a strong role playing on the wing against Ghana, neutralizing their ability to play the wings. While he will likely tuck in further against Portugal, expect Jones to play a similar role when covering Ronaldo Sunday evening.

X-FACTOR: Clint Dempsey
Filling in the shoes of Jozy Altidore will not be easy. The fact is, there is no one on the U.S. roster of his build or skill that can make for a like-for-like swap up top. Whoever Klinsmann deploys in that role, Dempsey will be vital in closing the talent gap. He is one of the few players available that can challenge a backline the way Altidore can, and that will be vital if the U.S. hopes to garner a victory — and qualification.

RESULT:
It won’t be easy, there will be many uncomfortable moments for the U.S., but expect them to take an early lead and sit on it with Portugal panicking to try and comeback. They won’t, and the U.S. will secure passage out of the Group of Death with a 1-0 win.


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