World Cup

World Cup Preview: USA v Portugal

Before the tournament began, all agreed that beating Ghana was a prerequisite to the U.S. advancing out of the group.

Well, job done.

Following the Ghana match, however, there was the intimidating prospect of facing Portugal, with the reigning World Player of the Year leading the attack. Most thought, “Hey, Portugal’s good, but anything can happen, right?” We all remembered 2002. In short, the mood was willfully optimistic rather than with any particular grounds.

But, after the first round of games, circumstances have changed, for both teams, and the scales are much more balanced than expected.

Injuries and suspensions

Both teams have injury problems. For the U.S., Jozy Altidore pulled up with a strained hamstring against Ghana. And, while the prognosis may not be as bad as first feared—team officials have said encouraging things about getting Altidore back for later in the tournament—he will not suit up against Portugal. The U.S. also saw Matt Besler, Alejandro Bedoya, and Geoff Cameron suffering with various degrees of injury, not to mention Clint Dempsey’s broken nose. The good news is that those four should all be fit.

Portugal’s situation is somewhat more dire. Starting left back Fabio Coentrao left Portugal’s first game with an injury that has ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. Same for striker Hugo Almeida. While Almeida was not someone the U.S. likely had serious concerns about, the loss of Coentrao will definitely hurt Portugal, both offensively and defensively.

And, of course, starting center back Pepe was issued a red card for being a stupid person, and will be suspended for the match against the U.S. That means that fully half of the starting Portugal back line will be missing, and if anyone knows the importance of defensive continuity, it’s the U.S.

Most worrying for Portugal, however, has to be the question of Cristiano Ronaldo’s fitness. Ronaldo ended his club season dealing with tendonitis in his left knee. He declared himself fully fit before the tournament, but did not look himself against Germany. Since then, he’s been forced to leave at least one practice early to ice that knee. Reports conflict. Some say Ronaldo is 100% fit, while others say that his injury is so serious that playing through it could endanger his career. As Ronaldo goes, so goes Portugal. If he cannot play at all, which seems unlikely, they are sunk. If he plays but is not at peak condition, which seems likely, the U.S. has a great opportunity to make a claim to the knock-out stages.

Formation questions

With Altidore’s injury, the U.S. is faced with the difficult decision of how to replace him. Aron Johannsson is a very talented player, but he is not a like-for-like swap for Altidore. His game is more about pace and space than it is about holding the ball and bringing midfielders into play. Chris Wondowlowski is at least more of a target forward than Johannsson, but one would think it would be a risk to start him in a game of this importance. The U.S., then, must decide whether to go with Johannsson (or Wondo) and retain the 4-4-2, or to instead replace Altidore with an extra midfielder, and switch to a 4-3-3/4-5-1 with Dempsey leading the line.

The advantage of retaining the 4-4-2 surely rests in the comfort the team has gained in that formation. Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman have put in heroic performances of late in that shape, whereas Jones has never looked quite right as one of a midfield three. But bringing in an extra midfielder would allow the team to play Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi at the same time, which would both increase the midfield solidity while bringing more creativity to the flanks.

And it is the flanks where this game will be won or lost, specifically the U.S.’s right. If Fabian Johnson is able to get up the line, supported by his midfield partner, without leaving the U.S. exposed to attacks by Ronaldo, then the U.S. will have an excellent chance not only at a point, but a win. If Johnson is pinned back, as he was against Ghana, then the U.S. offense is likely to stagnate somewhat. This is where the absence of Coentrao and the possible addition of Zusi could greatly advantage the U.S.

Michael Bradley

As he goes, so goes the United States. Bradley had a very poor game against Ghana, at least by his lofty standards. Never before in a U.S. shirt, perhaps, has Bradley sent more stray passes to the other team or out of bounds. The pessimist would say Bradley is slumping and that bodes ill for the U.S. But the optimist would say it’s nigh on impossible that Bradley will play so poorly again. He simply doesn’t allow himself that.

If Il Generale makes a reappearance and reasserts himself as a dominant force in the midfield, then the U.S. will be well into the game, regardless of Ronaldo’s presence. Germany’s midfield completely controlled Portugal in their opening match, which isn’t to compare the U.S. to Germany, but is to say that Portugal stutters seriously when their midfield creator Joao Moutinho can’t get on the ball. Beckerman and Bradley are nothing if not excellent deniers of space, and if Bradley can get on the ball in the center circle, he has the ability to power past Portugal’s next line of defense in Raul Meireles and jump-start the attack.


It’s impossible to say what will happen without knowing which version of Ronaldo the U.S. will face. If it’s the world-beating Ballon d’Or winner, then the U.S. will have a huge task ahead of it. If Ronaldo is truly injured, and cannot perform at his peak, then the task is somewhat easier. Either way, Portugal is a wounded animal, and needs points desperately. But the U.S. will be confident after it’s gutty win over Ghana, and Bradley surely will perform at a much higher level.

If the U.S. can successfully contain Portugal’s attacking flair, regardless of the Ronaldo that shows up, then it stands a very good chance of getting something from the game. With Cosmic Ronaldo: 1–1. With Human Ronaldo: 2–1 to the U.S.


  1. One of the most interesting things here is that no one knows who will play or what formation we will use. (this may even include Klinnsman. What I’m interested to talk about it not the guess as to who will play, but what would actually be the BEST way to play.
    I think Besler plays if he is 100%, if he is even slightly tweaked though he will (and should) sit in favor of Brooks, who is riding high. I also don’t think any change will be made with Beasley.
    Personally I think our best bet is to keep everyone else in place, but move Dempsey into the forward role and slide Mix in next to Bradley. It keeps the most continuity, plus it saves Zuzi and Johannson as impact sub options. I’m usually not a Bedoya fan but he impressed on Monday.
    thoughts from anyone else?

  2. If Wondo is really a “risk to start in a game of such importance”, then WTF is he doing on the &@€%ing World Cup squad?!? Are there any games of LESS importance???

    I tend to agree that we should maintain continuity with the same 4-4-2 formation. And I think that a Portugal back line missing two starters (and therefore some cohesion) might be the ideal time for Wondo’s off-the-last-defender’s-shoulder sneakiness. I say start him up top with Dempsey. And I think Bedoya is a good player, but Zusi brings a little more to the table (including fantastic set-piece service, as he amply demonstrated last match), so I’d start him instead.

  3. My first instinct is to just slot Wondo into the Jozy spot, with the hope that he’s more useful in holding posession than Johansson. Johansson makes for a dynamic late game option as well. Evaluate at half-time. If we need to lock down the midfield a bit, bring Mix or Zusi on and go with a 4-2-3-1 look.

  4. Seth Teater says:

    We should be able to run on this defense, and therefore, like you stated, want to focus our game on the flanks. Instead of trying to replace Altidore with Wondo or Aron, I would love to see us shift into a 4-2-1-2-1 with Dempsey up top, Bedoya and Zusi on the flanks, Bradley in the middle, and Jones and Beckerman behind. If Klinsey is bent on plugging in another striker, I would prefer Wondo, because of his knack for being in the right place and not getting in Deuce’s way…

  5. Tal Shiar says:

    Zusi is on fire. His pin point set piece service has been unreal. Play that dude!

  6. Wilkerson McLaser says:

    Agree. But I think he should move left where he’ll have more space to create and fewer defensive responsibilities. Bedoya on the right where he can tangle with Rinaldo and free up Fabian Johnson to do his thing on the overlap.
    Also, love the handle name. Tal Shiar don’t mess around.

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