A victory over formidable Portugal should advance Americans in World Cup.
By Robert Wagman
(Friday, June 20, 2014) -- After earning three points with its 2-1 victory over Ghana to open Group G of the FIFA World Cup, the United States men next face short-handed Portugal Sunday at Arena Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil.
The 6 p.m. (ET) match will be televised on ESPN and Spanish-language Univsion.
A U.S. (1-0-0, 3 points) victory over Portugal (0-1-0, 0), combined with Germany (1-0-0, 3) defeating Ghana (0-1-0, 0) on Saturday would send the Americans (and Germans) through to the Round of 16. A draw would keep the U.S. hopes alive to be one of the two teams to advance from Group G.
The U.S. will be a decided underdog Thursday in its group finale against Germany, a tournament favorite.
Even missing at least three starters, Portugal will be seen as a favorite over the U.S.
Portugal will be without central defender Pepe, suspended after getting a red card in Portugal’s opening loss to Germany, Right back Fábio Coentrão is out of the tournament after suffering a thigh injury, while forward Hugo Almeida has a groin injury and will miss at least the remaining two group matches.
Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patrício also has a thigh ailment, but is expected to play Sunday.
Missing half of its starting defense would seem to make Portugal suspect in back and something the U.S. might exploit. The problem is the Americans have their own injury problems.
Striker Jozy Altidore went down clutching his left hamstring in the 21st minute of the Ghana match and has been ruled out against Portugal and almost certainly against Germany. The U.S. will not give any kind of detailed information about the extent of his injury, but the Americans hope that Altidore might return should they advance to the knockout round. In the past, he has twice injured the same hamstring and both timed missed extensive time in recovery.
After cutting veteran attacker Landon Donovan from the squad, U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann brought four forwards to Brazil: Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Aron Johannsson and Major League Soccer veteran Chris Wondolowski.
Dempsey broke his nose against Ghana, but will play on Sunday. Johannsson replaced Altidore on Monday, but he was largely ineffective. Wondolowski is looked on as more of a late second-half replacement than a starter.
So what is Klinsmann likely to do? The best guess he will revert to using a single striker with Dempsey on top, supported by five midfielders. Call it a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1, but they’re just about the same.
Graham Zusi, who came off the bench to feed John Brooks’ late game-winner against Ghana, would seem the primary candidate to be the fifth midfielder, though midfielder-defender Timmy Chandler could be inserted and given man-marking responsibility against Portugese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.
Central Defender Matt Besler, who left the opener at halftime with tightness in his hamstring, has been cleared to play on Sunday. So the U.S. back-line will probably be unchanged from the four who started against Ghana: Fabian Johnson, Besler, Geoff Cameron and DaMarcus Beasley. One possibility is replacing Beasley, who had many problems against Ghana, with Chandler.
A key for the U.S. would be a strong effort by midfielder Michael Bradley. Bradley, usually the most influential American, was largely absent against Ghana.
The big question mark for Portugal involves Ronaldo’s sore left knee. He was generally ineffective against Germany and since then has cut training short, exiting with ice on the knee. The U.S. fully anticipates that he will play in the potential do-or-die match Sunday, but whether he is 100 percent is another question.
Portugal manager Paulo Bento will likely go with a more offensive set then he played against Germany, probably a 4-3-3, veteran Helder Postiga (27 goals in 69 appearances with Spain’s Valencia (on loan from Lazio of Italy), and Nani of England’s Manchester United flanking Ronaldo on top.
Against Germany, Ronaldo played in a wide left position. Valencia’s Ricardo Costa and Andre Almeida of Portugal’s Benfica, will likely replace Coentrão and Pepe at the back.
Nani, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho, all veterans and fixtures on major clubs, should round out the midfield.
Certainly, given the first match results -- the U.S. defeating nemesis Ghana 2-1 while Portugal was dismembered by Germany -- it would seem to make the Americans favorites on Sunday. But the question marks caused by injuries and U.S. lack of offense, the match seems wide open with too many uncertainties to classify either side as a favorite.