How big does John Anthony Brooks’ header seem now?
The German-American defender’s late goal off the foot of Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi gave the U.S. a 2-1 victory (and a vital three points) last Monday against Ghana.
That very same Ghana squad turned group play on its head by improbably picking up a 2-2 draw with Germany, one of the pre-tournament favorites. During the tie, Ghana had numerous chances to defeat the Germans outright.*
*This just in: Ghana might be pretty good you guys.
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As of right now, the U.S. men’s soccer team is in the driver’s seat for qualification from Group G into the next round — and there is almost no room for error either.
The math for qualification is relatively simple: If the U.S. beats Portugal on Sunday, they will reach the knockout stage regardless of the outcome in the last game of the group stage against Germany on Thursday. It gets a little murkier should the U.S. lose or draw with Portugal. Either result would throw the door open for a free-for-all in the last day of group play. (That would be bad.)
Bottom line: The United States has a very legitimate chance to finish atop of the Group of Death. Or, if things go sideways, not qualifying at all. So, um, no pressure guys.
Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First up is a tricky fixture with Portugal.
Kickoff is at 5:00 p.m. on ESPN from Arena da Amazonia in the jungle of Manaus. If you thought last week was crazy in the Power & Light District, it’s about to go complete bananas.
Let’s throw out the orange cones, slip on a penny and get a little warm-up in.
How will Jurgen Klinsmann change the attack?
The loss of Jozy Altidore, who has been ruled out for this game, is a tremendous blow to the United States.
Klinsmann had relied on Altidore’s combination of strength and speed to lead the line for the Americans. He was vital to the counter-attacking system Klinsmann has favored recently.
Will the U.S. coach adjust his game plan and, perhaps, his formation to replace him? If Aron Johannsson is named the starter the U.S. will need to have better possession in order to keep him from becoming isolated — as he was replacing Altidore in the Ghana in the first game. The same would hold true if Clint Dempsey is the lone starter up top. A formation with both involved would likely find the U.S. midfield overrun and struggling to find an outlet to relieve pressure.
A more practical approach could see Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski as the two forwards within the same system. Wondo, while not necessarily a hold-up forward, has an incredibly high work rate and can press the channels and fight to keep the ball in the attacking third. It would also allow Dempsey to drop off and help the midfield retain possession.
How healthy is Matt Besler?
Sporting Kansas City’s captain was forced to leave the Ghana game at halftime with a hamstring issue. Klinsmann says he’s fine. Besler says he’s fine. But, until I see him on the team sheet on Sunday, I’m a little bit skeptical. Besler has never been the kind of guy to leave a game unless there’s really a problem.
His replacement, Brooks, became an instant American hero for his late goal to win the game, but starting against the Portuguese is another challenge.
Besler’s best asset to this team — even more so than his ability to calmly clear danger — is his ability to quickly organize the back line and provide help defense. These are skills that he has honed as the marshal of Major League Soccer’s best overall defense the last two season.
In the first half against Ghana, Besler was constantly drifting wide to support DaMarcus Beasley and helping cover Kyle Beckerman when a Ghanaian midfielder was pushing up. They will need that sort of help again.
What’s the matter with Portugal?
In two words: A lot.
That’s both starting central defenders (Pepe suspend, Alves injured), the starting left back (Fabio Coentrao) and the first choice striker (Almeida) all out for Portugal. The goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, is also reportedly a doubt because of a left thigh injury.
And then we get to Cristiano Ronaldo being “half fit.” One of the two best players in the world has been the subject of speculation all week after leaving practice with an ice pack on his knee. His teammate, goalkeeper Beto, says bupkis to that. “Cristiano is 100 percent fit to play,” he said.
The danger: Even a half-fit Ronaldo is still one of the single most dangerous players in the world. It will be a tremendous task for Fabian Johnson to keep track of Ronaldo and, most likely, the job of whoever starts at right midfield (Alejandro Bedoya/Zusi) and Beckerman to offer help.
FYI: He’ll play.
Did Costa Rica lay the blueprint for the U.S.?
Our CONCACAF rival has been the shock of the tournament so far, upending both Uruguay and Italy to reach the knockout stage. How have they done it?
By being organized, defending as a unit, intelligent when pressing, full of resolve and completely comfortable in the conditions (weather, crowd, etc.). Basically, by playing as a team.
In a tournament like this, a little collective spirit can sometimes bridge obvious talent gaps.
A little confidence on the ball can’t hurt either.
Costa Rica was able to outlast Italy by taking pressure occasionally off its defense with sustained possession in the attacking half. The U.S. wasn’t able to accomplish this against Ghana, partially because Altidore is the best America has in that department.
Even though Portugal is depleted, they are not toothless. If Ronaldo, Nani and company are given the same space Ghana had to attack, they are bound to be more efficient.
The best defense against their efficiency would be to keep them from having the ball in the first place.
Prediction: United States 1, Portugal 0