By Steven Goff The Washington Post
MANAUS, Brazil — Halfway through his news conference Saturday at Arena da Amazonia, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann excused himself when two players entered to field questions. He was supposed to stay a bit longer, but with a personal and professional interest in Group G’s other game, Klinsmann hustled to find a TV showing the final moments of Germany’s 2-2 draw with Ghana.
Everything in the group stage of the World Cup is interwoven, with a result 1,500 miles away affecting teams preparing for their games 24 hours later. Such was the case Saturday as the favored Germans settled for one point, opening a glorious chance for the Americans to seize first place today evening with a victory over Portugal.
After watching the end of the other match, an outcome that left Germany just a point ahead of the United States, Klinsmann returned to the conference room.
“This is now the moment where you can prove yourself. This is the moment where you can step up and play those guys and put them in place,” Klinsmann said. “So we want to put Cristiano (Ronaldo) and his team in his place.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us, and we will definitely go for it.”
Six days after defeating Ghana, the Americans now control their fortunes in attempting to secure one of the group’s two places in the round of 16. The United States will need to claim between one and three points from the last two games to advance. A victory over fourth-ranked Portugal would mean the U.S. could then win the group with a tie against Germany next week.
“This is a massive game, a turning point for us,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “If we can win the game, we put ourselves in the next round. … If we can win and take care of business, the rest is history. It’s exciting.”
The task, however, remains formidable, with the sport’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, awaiting in stifling Manaus and Germany on the agenda Thursday in Recife.
Ronaldo, the world’s top player in 2008 and 2013, has been slowed by tendinitis in his left knee. He trained Saturday with a brace, and teammate Raul Meireles expects him to play against the Americans, who upset Portugal 3-2 in their 2002 World Cup opener.
“He’s strong physically. He’s a fast runner. He’s the best in the world with the ball at his feet,” Howard said. Howard and Ronaldo played together on Manchester United. “Good striker left and right foot. Dominant in the air. The list goes on and on. That’s why he’s the best player in the world.
“We’re going to do our best to bottle him up.”
The 29-year-old forward with the perpetually gelled hair has topped 50 goals in four straight seasons with Real Madrid. He was voted FIFA player of the year in 2008, then in January ended Lionel Messi’s streak of four consecutive awards.
“He’s a complete player,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley. “When you look at the game today, there’s such a premium on the physical aspect of the game — speed, strength, endurance — and he is a guy who checks all those boxes. And then when you talk about his technical ability — the way he shoots with his right foot, his left foot, how good in the air he is — he’s somebody who can make the difference at any moment.”
While the Americans appreciate Ronaldo’s extraordinary talent, they say they have implemented plans to both contain the superstar and impose their own game. Right back Fabian Johnson, left back DaMarcus Beasley and central defenders Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler figure to fixate on Ronaldo. Bradley, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones will assist in marking him from the midfield.
The U.S. has experience going up against top players, keeping Argentina’s Messi scoreless at the 2007 Copa America and during exhibitions in 2008 and 2011. England’s Wayne Rooney was held without a goal in the Americans’ 2010 World Cup opener.
“We have a lot of respect for Cristiano. He’s a great player. But I think you have to respect for the whole team of Portugal,” Jones said. “When we stick together like a team and fight like we did it against Ghana, then I think we have chances to win this game.”
Howard says it has to be a group effort.
“Body language. Communication,” he said, “and just being able to be in the right spots.”
Coming off a 4-0 loss to Germany on Monday, Portugal is ripe for the taking.
“There’s two ways to look at it,” Bradley said. “One is that they lost 4-0, played 60 minutes down a guy, a few injuries. And it would be easy to look and say this is a good time to play them. But the other side says that it is … in some ways a desperate team that is playing for their lives.”
The United States has a history of putting Portugal in place. Twelve years ago, in a group opener in South Korea, the Americans stunned the favorites with three early goals and posted a 3-2 victory — the beginning of the U.S. team’s run to the quarterfinals and Portugal’s first-round failure with what was considered its golden generation, led by Luis Figo.
Portugal has several key players injured and won’t be able to field its most formidable lineup for today’s match. Center back Pepe is serving a red-card suspension. His teammate from European champion Real Madrid, left-sided defender Fabio Coentrao, is sidelined with a groin injury. Forward Hugo Almeida went down with a thigh ailment against Germany. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio is suffering from a thigh injury. And Coach Paulo Bento will not make a decision until the game about defender Bruno Alves, who did not practice Saturday because of a sore leg.
“I know we are in a difficult situation,” Bento said. “We either win or we will start packing our suitcase and go home.”
Despite Portugal’s long list of absences, the Americans recognize the dangers presented by not only Ronaldo but by Raul Meireles and Manchester United’s Nani.
“Portugal is not only one player,” Jones cautioned.
Howard added: “Of course, ‘Ronaldo’ is the main man, probably the main man of this tournament, so we have to know where he is, but he is not the only one.”
The pressure, though, is mounting on Portugal, and during his media briefing Saturday, Bento seemed irritated by the line of questioning from his country’s critical press corps.
Conversely, Klinsmann exuded unbridled eagerness.
“We’ve been looking forward to this moment for quite a while,” he said. “We want to take our game to Portugal. We are full of energy. We are very impatient. We want to get this started.”
With Jozy Altidore, the U.S. team’s only pure striker, out with a hamstring injury, Klinsmann will have to adjust his lineup. It remains unclear whether he will replace Altidore with Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski or use captain Clint Dempsey as the lone forward and stuff the midfield with five players.
Dempsey was cleared to play after breaking his nose against Ghana. Center back Matt Besler is likely to start after missing the second half of the opener with hamstring tightness.
The weather outlook in this remote city of more than 1 million nestled in the Amazon region calls for an evening game-time temperature near 80, high humidity and a chance of rain — not unlike the climate the Americans encountered routinely for World Cup qualifiers in Central America and the Caribbean the previous two years.
The climate, though, is a small consideration in the way of Klinsmann’s larger ambitions.
“We believe we have the quality to beat Portugal,” he said. “Will it be very difficult? Absolutely.”
Associated Press contributed to this story.