They’ve taken their malaria pills and they’ve had their shots. They prepared for Amazonian conditions with a selection camp in Palo Alto heat and a tune-up in Jacksonville, Fla., mugginess. They have 3 points in the bank after their opening triumph over Ghana. All the Americans have to do now is what they haven’t been able to do since 1930 — win their first two matches at the World Cup.
That’s the challenge in the jungle on Sunday evening when the US men’s soccer team takes on wounded Portugal and the planet’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo. Win and the Americans are through to the Round of 16. Draw or lose and they’ll likely have to get points in Thursday’s group finale from the Germans, who had to struggle to tie Ghana, 2-2, after giving up the lead Saturday afternoon.
“If you’re not able to follow up the first game with a good result, then the first game goes right out the window,” observed midfielder Michael Bradley, who saved his mates from likely extinction four years ago with his 82d-minute goal against Slovenia. “And all of a sudden you’re going into Game 3 needing a result or looking at the other game.”
The Yanks have been there before and it’s no place to be. Beating Portugal, which is in deep trouble after its 4-0 thwacking from the Germans, gets them a ticket to a second-round date with an opponent (likely Belgium) from one of the tournament’s three weakest groups. It’s far from Mission Impossible or even Improbable.
Since the United States made its Cup entry in 1990 it has faced European rivals 14 times in the tournament and won just once — against the Portuguese in 2002. That was a significant upset. A victory in Manaus would not be. The Portuguese definitely will be without starting defenders Fabio Coentrao (injured) and Pepe (suspended) and probably without hobbled striker Hugo Almeida. And Ronaldo, who has been playing on one good leg, isn’t in his customary intergalactic form.
“It would be easy to look and say this is a good time to play [Portugal],” said Bradley. “But the other side says, it’s a desperate team that is playing for their lives because they need a result. We have to respect that. We have to understand how much they’re going to put into it.”
The Portuguese have to put everything they have into it because a draw does nothing for them. They have to come at the Americans early before Ronaldo wilts in the steambath. What the Americans have to do is what they didn’t do against Ghana, which is to keep possession and take the pressure off a back line that held up well enough against the Black Stars, but that wasn’t dealing with anyone of Ronaldo’s quality.
The US team also has to figure out what it’s going to do for an attack now that Jozy Altidore is out with a strained hamstring and Clint Dempsey will be playing with a busted nose. The question for coach Jurgen Klinsmann is whether he rearranges his formation to have Dempsey, his best sniper, play alone up top, or puts either of two Cup neophytes — Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski — alongside him.
“Jozy is a special player,” acknowledged Wondolowski. “You can’t replace him. That’s like saying, ‘Hey, go be Cristiano Ronaldo.’ ”
The closest thing the Yanks ever have had to Ronaldo is Landon Donovan, who is commentating about a team that he wasn’t deemed worthy of joining for a fourth time. Dempsey, of course, has the same jugular instinct as does Donovan (as the Ghanaians can attest), but he’s going to get an extraordinary amount of attention from the Portuguese defenders.
Even if the captain can go 90 minutes while breathing wet-sauna air through his mouth, he’s going to need plenty of support to service him and spring him loose. That means that Bradley, who was off his game against Ghana, will have to step up as he usually does on the big stage.
“I’m certainly honest enough and hard enough on myself to know that it wasn’t my sharpest night,” he acknowledged.
The 2002 team that went up 3-0 on Portugal in the first 36 minutes had more firepower — Donovan, Brian McBride, John O’Brien et al — than does this one. These Americans will have to get more goals off set pieces, as they did against Ghana (Dempsey’s was off a throw-in; John Brooks’s winner off a corner). But Job One in Manaus is to keep Ronaldo off the board.
“We definitely have to stop him,” said Wondolowski, “but we don’t want anyone else to beat us.”
Getting 3 points in the jungle, by whatever means necessary, would be a splendid result that would put the Yanks atop the group going into their date with the Mannschaft in Recife. More importantly, it would get them out of the Group of Death alive, which only star-spangled optimists thought might happen.
From there, as Klinsmann said, the sky’s the limit.