If the U.S. is going to have any real shot at knocking off Portugal in World Cup play on Sunday, it will have to do four things, ranging from the physical to the mental and the psychological, the fourth of which is most important.
First, it must survive the oppressive heat and humidity - and handle the consequences of whatever happens.
U.S. vs. Portugal
O Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV » ESPN
» U.S. can clinch a spot in the second round with a win Sunday. > C8
The game will be played in Manaus, a native word that loosely translated through Portuguese into English means "hell’s barbecue." OK, that’s a lie. It really means "sweatbox in the forest." Either way, going all out for 90 minutes in conditions better suited for frogs and lizards than human beings, smack dab in the heart of the Amazon, will be a major factor.
Already, each of these teams is fighting injury. American forward Jozy Altidore is out the door - with that bad hammy he suffered against Ghana. Portugal is without left back Fabio Coentrao, forward Hugo Almeida and defender Bruno Alves. And then, there is the tender left knee of Cristiano Ronaldo, which he has been protecting with a brace in the run-up to the match. It’s a brace he’s worn - and played with - before. His teammates say he’ll be ready.
This will be a game of survival, then. If soccer is life, this is life played out under pressure - in a steam room. After losing to Germany, 4-nil, Portugal has to come back strong against the U.S. or risk getting bounced from the tournament, an unacceptable result for the fourth-ranked team in the world. For the Americans, once again, they are seemingly carrying the sport of soccer on their shoulders, attempting to gain farther reach for the game among sports fans here in the homeland and legitimizing American play elsewhere. There’s no better place to get that gain - in the eyes of countrymen and soccer traditionalists around the globe - than at the biggest sports event on the planet.
Second, it has to limit Ronaldo.
No big surprise there. He’s the world’s best footballer. And even those in Lionel Messi’s camp on that issue have to agree, Ronaldo’s the greatest 1-v-1 player in the game. He can make single defender’s look silly, and, regardless of their focus, he likely will, at least at times. There are two schools of thought on slowing Ronaldo: 1) commit a defender to him and dog him like a mother, or 2) play straight up, with an increased awareness of his presence, being physical with him when possible, and hold onto your shorts.
The U.S. will likely do a little of the former and a lot of the latter. If Ronaldo plays at only 80 percent because of his knee, he’s still better than 99 percent of his competition. The Germans, though, did a great job of limiting Ronaldo by blanketing him to the point of frustration.
Third, it should park an 18-wheel rig in the midfield, jamming up traffic.
Germany accomplished this effectively, in part because of Pepe’s foolishness that led to his red card, leaving his side a man down. But the U.S. can add a fifth midfielder, especially in the wake of Altidore’s absence, possess the ball a bit more there, trying judiciously to get it to the feet of Clint Dempsey, where the striker can then use his creativity in attack.
What the U.S. can’t do is get greedy or sloppy with aggression and then turn the ball over. Ronaldo loves the counterattack and so often is effective when teammates get him the ball in open space, enabling him to run at defenders and wow everyone in the building.
Fourth, it has to finally dump its inferiority complex when playing the world’s best teams, and simply roll like a boss.
Too often when the Americans play upper levels of international competition, they say the right things and then go out and blow pistons and gaskets and engine oil all over the road. Not saying the U.S. players aren’t tough, because they are. Just saying they must really believe in themselves when faced with top-drawer competition. It’s one thing to beat Ghana. It’s another to step up against a top five-ranked team and show those guys the way we do it downtown, even if, in this case, that means making the game ugly rather than all technical and beautiful.
That’s why Jurgen Klinsmann’s pretournament comments pretty much ruling out the Americans’ chances of winning the World Cup were damaging. He was right, but it was no time to tell the truth. That’s the opposite of what his players have to believe. To defeat Portugal, they’ll have to see themselves as world-beaters, stretching the truth and their imagination as far as necessary to achieve that goal.
Klinsmann apparently has caught on, telling reporters: "We have very good players in this squad and we have the confidence to go into that game and say, ‘We are here and want to beat you and get into the next round.’ Our approach is not to go to Manaus and defend for a 1-1 or 0-0 or whatever it is, but we go there and want to win this game.
"This is our goal and we believe in it and believe we can go to Manaus and beat them. We want to get in the next round and if it takes beating Portugal, then this is what we have to do."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.