SAO PAULO -- It's not about who replaces Jozy Altidore up front. It's not even about whether Cristiano Ronaldo plays. No, when the U.S. meets Portugal on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) in Manaus, there's a good chance that the outcome of the match will hinge on how well Michael Bradley rebounds from what, by his own admission, was a subpar performance in the Americans' 2-1 World Cup-opening triumph against Ghana.
"I'm certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself," Bradley said here Friday, "to know that it wasn't my sharpest night."
It's often said that soccer games are won and lost in the midfield, but that's nonsense. The Yanks' win on Monday, for instance, was decided in the penalty area. So was Uruguay's victory over England three days later. The U.S. and Uruguay were overrun in heart of the field yet prevailed because they made most of their chances. Ghana and England did not.
Against Portugal, though, the battle in midfield could mean everything. Portugal's back line is depleted through injury and suspension, and forward Ronaldo's status for the match is questionable, even if the Selecao's team doctor insisted the sore knee that limited FIFA's reigning world player of the year in Portugal's 4-0 loss to Germany is now, miraculously, 100 percent.
But their midfield -- led by playmaker Joao Moutinho and center men Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles -- remains among the most talented in the tournament.
It will be up to Bradley to contain them. He'll have help, of course. Kyle Beckerman will again sit in front of the Yanks' back four. Jermaine Jones, who was immense defensively against the Black Stars even though pushed out wide, could be back in his usual spot in the center if U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann goes with a five-man midfield Sunday.
The insertion of defensive specialist Beckerman into the Americans' starting lineup has changed Bradley's role some, allowing him to be more of an offensive catalyst farther up the field. Against Portugal, he'll be counted on to aid Clint Dempsey (and perhaps Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski) going forward.
But Bradley is still a two-way player at his core, and his ability to keep possession and relieve pressure with incisive passes -- two traits that deserted him in the curtain-raiser -- will be crucial. There is no other player on the U.S. squad who can do what he does, and he will have to do it well if the Yanks are to get a result. Klinsmann, for one, has full faith in the 26-year-old's ability to recover immediately.
"I know that Michael can step it up again," Klinsmann said earlier in the week. "And this is good to know. We said it [Monday] after the game: There were certainly things that we need to improve, certainly things that went not as well as we wanted, but gives us even more hope going into Portugal because we know that we didn't play to our best capabilities. But we still won. So now we're going to go to Manaus and if we go to the best level that we can play, it's going to be difficult for Portugal."
Especially if Bradley is at his best.