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ON SOCCER

US must strike first against depleted Portugal

This head butt by Portugal defender Pepe will keep him out of Sunday’s game vs. the US. PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Patrik Stollar/AFP/Getty Images

This head butt by Portugal defender Pepe will keep him out of Sunday’s game vs. the US.

The template already is there, the same one that the US soccer team used to shocking success in its 2002 World Cup opener against Portugal. Get off first. The Portuguese are reeling after their worst defeat in tournament history, a 4-0 loss to the Germans that was, as the Lisbon newspaper Correio da Manha observed, a “derrota humilhante” (humiliating defeat).

It was worse than that, since the Portuguese lost three starters to boot: Striker Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao were injured and defender Pepe will sit out after being red-carded for head-butting Thomas Mueller.

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So the Americans, on a tropical high after their 86th-minute triumph over Ghana, have a golden chance to grab another 3 points Sunday in the Amazon jungle and to do what they didn’t do the last time they won their initial outing, which is follow one victory with another.

Their 2002 predecessors had the host South Koreans on the ropes with a dozen minutes to go but gave up the equalizer to Ahn Jung Hwan. Then, after they didn’t bother showing up for the group finale against Poland, the Yanks needed a gift from the Koreans to advance.

They’ve already received their gift this time from the Germans, who put the Portuguese into a deep goal-differential hole.

“I can only give them huge compliment,” US coach Jurgen Klinsmann saluted. “Impressive, no doubt about it.”

By the time the US takes the field in the Manaus sauna, the Mannschaft may well have done Klinsmann and his squad another favor by knocking out the Ghanaians on Saturday. The charity, of course, would end there. The Germans don’t need a second-round meeting with their resurgent Belgian neighbors so they’ll do whatever it takes to win the group when they meet Klinsi’s Kids in the finale a week from Thursday in Recife.

What the Americans certainly don’t want is to have to get points from the Germans, so beating Portugal will be crucial. The way they did it last time was to bum-rush Luis Figo and friends from the opening whistle, go up by three goals after three dozen minutes and then hang on. That’s how the US started against Ghana with Clint Dempsey, their only sniper, taking dead aim in the first half-minute. They just didn’t continue that way.

The difference between this American team and that one is that Dempsey is the only gunner they have now that Jozy Altidore likely will be sidelined with a strained hamstring. That, of course, was Klinsmann’s gamble when he bypassed Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson. His calculus depended on the troika of Dempsey, Altidore, and midfielder Michael Bradley providing a coordinated and creative attack.

That concept went kablooey after 23 minutes Monday when Altidore grabbed his left leg.

“I knew right away I couldn’t continue,” he said.

Nor is it likely that Klinsmann will put Altidore on the field Sunday and risk ending his tournament. Dempsey, who finished the match with a busted nose and was coughing up blood, is a warrior who’ll go the distance even if he has to breathe through his eyelids.

That leaves Bradley, who was the invisible man Monday. He’s the guy who makes the diamond formation work. If he’s not moving up to create and if he’s unable to pass or to keep possession, his reason for being out there vanishes.

Too often against Ghana, Bradley looked like a Cup newbie instead of the savior who kept the US alive four years ago in South Africa when he dashed into the box and roofed the equalizer against Slovenia eight minutes before his mates would have been beaten.

Only four field players remain from that squad — Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore, and DaMarcus Beasley, who has been reborn as a defender. If the US wants to advance in Brazil, the veterans have to shoulder the load. As it was, the Americans were overmatched for most of the night by the Black Stars, who had a decided edge in possession (59-41 percent), shots (21-8) and corners (7-3).

“We dominated the whole game,” observed Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah.

Were it not for some inspired work by keeper Tim Howard and a back line that was schooled by Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew on the tying goal but otherwise held up reasonably well, the US would have been on the other end of a 2-1 result, just as it was in 2010.

“There is stuff we need to improve,” acknowledged Klinsmann, who has decisions to make the next few days.

Does he go with Aron Johannsson, who subbed for Altidore, up front? Or Chris Wondolowski? If sore-legged center back Matt Besler is fit, does Klinsmann start him again alongside Attleboro’s own Geoff Cameron, who had a solid global debut? Or go with John (“I had a dream”) Brooks, Monday’s high-leaping hero?

The Americans — barely — got what they came for in Natal.

“We got the 3 points that we wanted and we can move on,” Klinsmann said.

Moving through to the second round likely will require 3 more and Portugal will be desperate, which they were not in 2002.

“Now they are going to come into Manaus pretty angry,” mused Klinsmann.

Cristiano Ronaldo and his associates also will be coming in depleted and desperate, which could set them up for a knockout blow. The Yanks don’t have to deliver it in the first minute. They just have to get off first.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.
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