U.S. has a historic chance
MANAUS, Brazil -- A special opportunity has been put in front of the U.S. men's national team.
Thanks to Ghana's 2-2 draw with Germany on Saturday, a win against Portugal on Sunday will put the Americans through to the round of 16.
You have to go back to 1930 to find the last time the U.S. won their first two matches at a World Cup. On that occasion, they reached the semifinals in the tournament's first incarnation. Now the U.S. can duplicate that feat and make a massive statement by becoming the first team to emerge from a stacked Group G. Of course, to do so, they'll have to get by arguably the best player in the world: Cristiano Ronaldo.
"We want to put Cristiano and his team in place," said Klinsmann at his pregame news conference. "We want to get out there with all the energy that we have, all the discipline that we're going to bring, with all the aggressiveness that we're going to bring to the play, and make it our game. We are ready for that, we are prepared for that."
Portugal was deeply wounded by its 4-0 hammering at the hands of Germany. Not only is central defender Pepe suspended thanks to a foolish red card, but forward Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao have been ruled out for the remainder of the tournament with injuries. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio will also miss the match due to a left thigh ailment and Portugal manager Paulo Bento announced at his news conference that defender Bruno Alves is in danger of missing the match as well.
However, it is still a game fraught with danger. While the losses will no doubt result in a drop in quality, the players filling in will be hungry to prove they belong. Plus, there is a risk in placing too much attention on Ronaldo. Portugal still has quality players like midfielders Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho, who can do plenty to dictate play.
"Everybody knows the quality and strength of Portugal," said Klinsmann. "It makes the situation even more difficult and dangerous for us. We have to be spot on, alert from the first second. The players have to go to the maximum of their capabilities."
Goalkeeper Tim Howard added, "If we pay too much attention to Ronaldo, someone else will beat us. So we've got to be diligent, we've got to be aware of their danger men."
Yet stopping Ronaldo will be foremost on the minds of the U.S. defenders, given his ability to win a match almost on his own. Both Ronaldo and Howard joined Manchester United prior to the 2003-04 season. Even back then, Howard knew he was in the presence of a special player.
"The moment he stepped in the door, he had skills that I'd never seen before," he said. "Could you imagine that he'd be World Player of the Year? Not at that time, but he certainly had the tools. He's the single hardest working player I've ever been around, both on and off the field. His work ethic is incredible."
There has been some talk that the way to stop Ronaldo -- who it must be noted has been hobbled by tendinosis in his left knee as well as a thigh injury -- is to simply assign someone to man-mark him. But that risks compromising the resolute defensive shape the U.S. displayed in beating Ghana, and while right back Fabian Johnson figures to match up against him the most, the entire team will need to be apprised of his whereabouts.
"We have to know where he is and we have to try and collectively get around him and get some help and support each other defensively," said Howard.
Of course, an improved attack remains the best way to keep Ronaldo under control, and the U.S. knows that a better possession game is the best way to accomplish that goal. Alas, the absence of Jozy Altidore to a hamstring injury undermines that approach, as no one else on the roster possesses the Sunderland man's ability to play with his back to goal, and take the punishment that Portugal's center-backs can dish out.
Klinsmann has remained mum about who will take Altidore's place. It would appear that either Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski will enter the lineup, though there remains an outside chance that Mix Diskerud or Graham Zusi could be chosen in a bid to bolster the U.S. midfield.
Regardless of who is chosen, the U.S. must compete on more level terms when it comes to keeping the ball.
"We need to use the ball well and make them defend, and hurt them and push them back and make the field as big as possible," said Howard.
If that goal is achieved, then Sunday may long be remembered as a special day in U.S. soccer history.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.