John Brooks may have dreamt the extraordinary finish to the United States’ first match of the 2014 World Cup, but the way in which the 90 minutes against Ghana panned out is unlikely to have featured in any of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s pre-game permutations.
Not only was there the first-minute goal from Clint Dempsey and the dramatic winner from Brooks, but the U.S. suffered injuries to three key players. While defender Matt Besler is expected to return without difficulty, there remains plenty for Klinsmann to contemplate heading into his side’s second game of the World Cup, against Portugal on Sunday.
Dempsey suffered a broken nose early on, courtesy of a high boot, and his performance was clearly hampered for the remainder of the match. The team’s captain is set to play against Portugal, although it has yet to be decided whether or not he will wear a protective mask. In the stifling conditions in the Amazonian city of Manaus, breathing will be a real challenge.
The prognosis for his forward partner is much less positive, however. Jozy Altidore will definitely miss Sunday’s game with a strained left hamstring. The nature of the injury and the vague nature of the comments from the U.S. Soccer Federation -- stating they were “hopeful” of Altidore returning in the tournament -- suggest the team will have to go deep into this World Cup in order for him to return.
Altidore’s absence gives Klinsmann his biggest headache. The powerful striker has been a permanent fixture in the first-choice U.S. side through qualifying and is crucial to the way it plays. No other forward on the squad has the physical attributes to lead the line in the same way. Chris Wondolowski is as lethal predator in the box and has a good recent goal record for his country, but lacks the all-round game.
Aron Johannsson arguably has more upside than Altidore going forward and came into the World cup after a much better season than his injured teammate, with 17 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie for AZ Alkmaar. But after coming in for Altidore against Ghana, Johannsson really struggled to make an impact and ease the pressure on the U.S. defense.
It would unfair to blame all of that on Johannsson. While it was a famous win for the U.S., it was not a performance that to savor. Indeed, much of the work that Klinsmann had done in the buildup to the World Cup faded increasingly from sight after the team garnered that early lead. Klinsmann has repeatedly emphasized his desire for the U.S. to move away from being plucky underdogs and instead be far more proactive in asserting themselves on their opponents.
Instead, the U.S. went firmly back to its roots against Ghana. The diamond midfield flattened out to become a narrow line of four sat in front of the defense. There was a superbly disciplined performance from Kyle Beckerman and a tireless one from Jermaine Jones but the players expected to provide the quality on the ball failed to deliver. Chief among those was Michael Bradley. The Toronto FC man has become the team’s key player in recent months, with the system designed to maximize his dynamism and ever-improving quality in the final third. If the team is to progress, Bradley has to come to the fore.
The good news for Klinsmann is, having got a vital three points in the bag, his side now faces a Portugal team with far greater concerns. Foremost among them remains Cristiano Ronaldo. While everyone in the Portugal camp continues to insist that he is fit, the sight of him with an icepack on his troublesome knee suggests otherwise.
And so, frankly, did his disappointing performance in Portugal’s shambolic 4-0 defeat to Germany to kickoff their World Cup campaign. After a positive start, Pepe was far from the only member of Paulo Bento’s team to combust against an admittedly impressive Germany performance. Pepe’s red card means he will miss the meeting with the United States, as will left-back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida through injury. Almeida’s injury will not be a major concern, with Hugo Postiga set to come in, but Pepe’s absence weakens an already struggling defense. Meanwhile, the loss of Coentrao, whose runs are vital down the left flank, will make it even harder for Ronaldo to have a real impact against a U.S. team that will surely focus on shutting him down.
Portugal now badly needs a win to keep their chances of making the Round of 16 of the World Cup in their own hands. As much as their personnel issues, the key question will be how Portugal will react mentally to such a demoralizing opening defeat and now having their backs planted firmly against the wall for match two.
Prediction: Despite having more talent, Portugal has a habit of struggling against determined underdogs like the U.S. In qualifying they drew twice with Israel as well as at home to Northern Ireland. A primarily counter-attacking team, Portugal will be forced into taking the game to the U.S. and that will surely leave them vulnerable at the other end. Were the U.S. at full strength, a strong argument could be made for them winning this match. However, without the hold-up play and pace of Altidore, and with Dempsey unlikely to be at his best, they could well lack the necessary threat on the break to punish Portugal. The U.S. will increasingly sit back, but, in the punishing conditions, Portugal could fade and lack the energy to break them down, meaning the match quite possibly ending in a stalemate that will suit Klinsmann’s men far better.
USA 1-1 Portugal
Betting odds (bovada.lv)
USA win: 33/10
- The United States will progress to the Round of 16 with a victory combined with a draw or defeat for Ghana against Germany on Saturday.
- Portugal will be eliminated with a defeat combined with a draw or victory for Germany against Ghana.
- The only previous meeting between the U.S. and Portugal at a World Cup came in 2002, when the U.S. prevailed, 3-2.
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Group G match will kick off from the Arena Amazonia in Manaus at 6 p.m. ET.