Can the USMNT Handle Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal?
The net was still rippling. Strangers clad in red, white, and blue were hugging. John Brooks was being mobbed by his teammates, as an unlikely hero emerged in the 86th minute. And, perhaps in a truly American sense, I was already thinking about Portugal.
Yes, we still had four minutes to go plus stoppage time, but everything fell into place. The second that goal went in - well, really when the final whistle blew - our odds of advancing to the Knockout Stage increased to 59.21% (up 32.05%). Our chance to win it all jumped from 0.14% to 1.61%.
Let’s take a look at our Portuguese opponent for Sunday.
This Portugal squad has possibly the best and most recognizable player in the world on their team in Cristiano Ronaldo. There isn't much to say about CR7 that hasn’t already been said, and Matt Besler summed up his press conferences pre-Brazil by saying, “Mostly, I've been asked about playing Cristiano Ronaldo.” And that was before the tournament even started.
On Monday, Ronaldo was mainly a spectator, as his team were demolished by a stunning German squad. If Portugal wants to win against the U.S., they need Ronaldo to carry them the same way he did against Sweden to secure a spot in Brazil. But he might have to do it on a knee that still isn't fully healed. He's still capable of taking over though, so the Americans need to beware.
Ronaldo, at age 29, is facing his last World Cup in his prime, and a loss on Sunday would effectively end it before it even started. A man with an ego the size of Portugal will not want a hole in his CV that gaping. So motivation will likely not be a problem, as Jurgen Klinsmann opined after the game, “Portugal is going to come into Manaus pretty angry,” Klinsmann said. “I don’t know how Cristiano Ronaldo behaves when he’s angry.”
Portugal not only lost to Germany, but that game will have numerous ramifications against the USA. Pepe insanely, stupidly, and selfishly, decided to touch heads with Thomas Muller, and not in an affectionate kind of way, either. The ref correctly gave him a straight red card. It killed Portugal’s chances of getting anything against Germany, but will also see Pepe on the sidelines on Sunday. Left back Fabio Coentrao also had to depart the game due to injury and will not make it back in time. Changing two defenders is never a good thing, especially on short notice like this. Add to that the loss of striker Hugo Almeida and that is three starters gone. Advantage USA.
Portugal will likely stick to their 4-3-3 with Ronaldo and Nani flying up and down the wide areas. Their lack of a quality striker was always a problem, magnified by Almeida’s absence now. Helder Postiga could replace him. His main job will be to harry defenders and create space, allowing Ronaldo to cut inside and be Ronaldo. The USMNT will have to be wary Portugal's pace. They get the ball outside quickly and let the two wingers fly. In the middle, Joao Moutinho will provide the creativity whole Raul Meireles will provide the engine. The classic joke of CR7 plus 10 others is a bit overstated, as there is certainly some quality in this squad, albeit under severe pressure. "This is the moment where we'll find out who we are," Portugal manager Paulo Bento said.
The Germany game also has some major implications on Portugal’s strategy for Sunday. Not only does Portugal need to win, but they need to overcome a four goal deficit in goal differential. This will force them to attack from the onset. A 1-0 win is nice, but with tiebreaker rules, they might not have the luxury of just worrying about the win. This can play into the USA’s hands if they decide to sit back and absorb pressure, then release a counterattack.
How these strategies play out in the heat of Manaus is also a key factor. Can Portugal continue to attack while battling the elements? Can the USMNT withstand and defend when their legs are shattered in the 70th minute? The heat will make it vitally important to get off to a good start for both teams.
Our Game Simulator sees the match ending as Portugal 1.49 – USA 1.14. Portugal has a 46.37% chance to win, while the Stars and Stripes have only a 22.61% chance to win. It makes sense given the nERD score differential of 2.43 to 2.06. Add to that a motivated Ronaldo looking to erase any doubts that he is the greatest player alive, and that makes for an uphill battle ahead for USA. It seems likely that the USMNT will lose and face off against Germany in a must win game to advance.