Another upset is in the making, with or without Chris Wondolowski
What would happen if two counterattacking teams met in the Amazon jungle to play a vital game in 90-degree heat at nearly 90 percent humidity? We’ll find out when the United States takes on Portugal in the Arena de Amazônia on Sunday. The Americans, fresh off an ugly but ultimately effective victory over Ghana, can see their path to the second round. Their opponents, turned into Weisswurst by Germany, desperately need a point or three to have a chance at the knockout stage. Expect the tournament trend of open, attacking play to be put on pause for a second as each side conservatively pokes and prods, keeping its defensive shape and with the hope that the other squad will blink first.
The big question for American coach Jurgen Klinsmann is who to start in Jozy Altidore’s spot. The forward strained his hamstring in the early going against Ghana and was replaced by Aron Johannsson, who was more or less ineffective in the target forward role, too slight to handle the pounding from Ghana’s backline. While thuggish Pepe, suspended for being a moron, won’t figure for Portugal, his replacement Ricardo Costa or Luis Neto aren’t afraid to bang around opposing forwards. Klinsmann could start Chris Wondolowski, a stouter, stronger forward, but that would mean Chris Wondolowski will start in a World Cup game. (That’s a cheap, perhaps unfair, joke but just cue the Robbie Findley flashbacks and you’ll see what I mean.) The final option is to put Clint Dempsey on an island by himself and let him battle it out, broken nose and all. So yes, not exactly filet mignon or lobster. The best option might be a Dempsey-Johannsson tandem—and fewer long balls over the top. If the U.S. can’t keep possession better than it did against Ghana, it’s over anyway.
The man responsible for making that happen will be Michael Bradley, fresh off one of his worst games in a U.S. jersey. “I thought he was great,” Kyle Beckerman said after the game against Ghana, which was certifiably untrue. “I thought he covered a ton of ground. It’s just the style of play we chose tonight.” Style of play is one thing, and Bradley did—as always—cover a lot of ground defensively but missing simple passes is another. Alejandro Bedoya tweaked a muscle in his rib cage trying to leap for another overhit Bradley ball. The midfielder can’t, and won’t, have another screamer of a match in Manaus. He’ll rise to the occasion because he always does. Well, except against Ghana. But he will. He has to.
Now, how do you solve a problem like Cristiano Ronaldo? The easiest way is for him to hurt himself and miss the match, which might happen. But this is the World Cup we’re talking about, a month every four years that dictates legacies and endorsement deals, and he’ll play if he can. Everything Portugal does runs through the Real Madrid star, who enjoys terrorizing the right side of opposing formations. Ghanaian goalscorer Andre Ayew skinned U.S. right back Fabian Johnson when he stopped paying attention for a split second. Ronaldo will destroy that type of marking. Does Klinsmann role the dice with young DeAndre Yedlin, inexperienced but confident and more attentive to his defensive responsibilities than Johnson, who can be effective in midfield? There’s part of me that thinks the coach brought Yedlin to Brazil specifically with these 90 minutes in mind. Another key: limiting the number of free kicks conceded within 30 yards of goal. Even a 75 percent healthy Ronaldo boasts a cannon for a shot. And no one wants to watch him stand their posing before he begins his run-up. (And if you want some further reading, here are six world class players offering their thoughts on an unsolvable problem.)
The Portugal team feels individualized, like the bounty hunters on the deck of Darth Vader’s ship. While Paulo Bento has a collection of immense talent at his disposal, it rarely comes together in any semblance of cohesion. The squad limped through World Cup qualifying, needing four goals from Ronaldo (Boba Fett in this scenario) to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s two in order to defeat Sweden in the playoff. In-form left back Fábio Coentrão will miss the U.S. game, and the remainder of the World Cup, with a groin injury, and forward Hugo Almeida is out as well. Coentrão’s replacement Andre Almeida has six caps to his name, rivaling some of the Americans for inexperience. He can be exploited. And Portugal can be punched in the mouth early, picked apart, and systematically beaten.
Then again, Boba Fett was smart, canny, and experienced enough to get his man. But he didn’t have to battle the heat and humidity of Manaus—or an ailing knee—which would have been a brutal task with all that armor. My prediction for the final: 2–1 U.S.