||USA vs Portugal
||Arena da Amazonia
||5 PM Eastern
Via AO Augusta.
It's (probably) simple for the US: draw and don't get blown out by Germany and you're through. The best way to draw is to win, because then even if you don't win you still draw.
Now, about doing that…
THE THEM: RONALDO AND THE OTHER GUYS
Portugal fell apart like a Michigan running play against Germany, falling behind early, taking a straight red when Pepe lost his mind, and then slowly bleeding goals the rest of the 90. It was an hour and a half of a 3-yard TFL.
This means that Portugal will be desperate to go up early. They will attack like mad; the US has to weather that storm. The good news is that if the US gets a lead it seems likely that Portugal will deflate. They're a bit fragile, the Portugals.
From time immemorial Portugal has relied on a 4-3-3 in which the striker is more of a facilitator to Ronaldo than an elite threat himself; this means that forward surges from the USA fullbacks will seem promising until such time as the US doesn't have the ball, whereupon you'll be screaming GET BACK GET BACK at the teevee. With Portugal going balls to the wall for three points, a withering back and forth akin to the Turkey game beckons, albeit hopefully one with fewer free goals handed out.
GOALIE: If Rui Patricio, the designated starter is out, there will be another goalie who is probably slightly worse. But he's still a goalie.
yeah but "Beat It" was a hit
DEFENSE: Shot through the heart and various things are to blame. Pepe, the first-choice centerback who's real fast, took a red card and is out. Fabio Coentrao strained a groin and is out. Bruno Alves has some sort of hamstring issue and is "doubtful" for Sunday.
As a result, this looks rather appealing from a US perspective. Pepe's likely replacement is 33-year-old Diego Costa. If Alves plays this makes the Portugal CB pairing 1) old, 2) slow, and 3) forced to endure the punishing heat and humidity of the Amazon. They're good, of course. This is not an ideal situation for them. If Alves does not play, his replacement is Luis Neto, who plays in Russia and has nine caps to his name.
On the outside, Andre Almeida (not that Andre Almeida) is likely to replace Coentrao. A converted midfielder unsure about his positioning, he doesn't get forward that much… or at least hasn't in the last few games. That's a major downgrade from Coentrao.
Joao Pereira is the right back; he's the guy who dragged down the German dude to open the scoring in that route. He is a fixture at Valencia, and is more of a tough-tackling guy who won't do much surging forward.
MIDFIELD: Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles are highly likely. Meireles is the biker Viking you may have seen extending his index fingers at the referee on twitter:
some people saw middle fingers and went omg
His main asset is running around tirelessly and annoying people, like Jones. Zonal Marking notes that he "does everything reasonably well without excelling in any one category."
Moutinho is the primary link between attack and defense:
Ronaldo was the obvious star of Portugal's 3-2 victory over Sweden in the second leg of the playoff, but Moutinho's role was vital. It was his perfect through ball that laid on the first (although it would be wrong to give him too much credit for his positioning, given he was only there because he'd been writhing in supposed agony trying to get the game stopped). Still, having received the ball, his awareness and the weight of pass were exemplary.
In what often seems a broken team with six defensive players and three forwards, Moutinho's capacity to link the two parts of the side, both with his running and his passing ability, is critical. Efficient rather than flashy, he is the central intelligence that binds Portugal together.
That is even more true now with Coentrao out; the US should focus on applying pressure to him as quickly as possible, allowing anyone but Moutinho the time and space to try an incisive ball.
Those guys are the higher-placed of the three midfielders; the defensive midfielder could be Miguel Veloso, who played against Germany, or the 22-year-old riser William Carvalho. Veloso got pulled out of position constantly in the first gmae, but the Portugal coach tends to ride or die with the same set of guys. Would he ride or die after a 4-0 defeat? I don't know. The soccer internets seem to think Carvalho is a much better idea, as he is clever on the ball and has attacking upside. Portugal needs that in a game they must win.
FORWARD: I'll list the three main attackers here even though Nani's more of a winger, as Portugal has steadfastly stuck to a 4-3-3 in which the front three don't put a ton of work in on defense.
don't let this happen much please
Ronaldo is Ronaldo. He will hang out on the left wing and try to cut in; he'll shoot from all angles; he will flip from time to time with Nani to see if he can annihilate the other side of the US lineup a bit easier. Ronaldo's been dealing with tendinitis and hasn't been able to practice much, often limping off the field after 15 or 20 minutes with an ice pack on his leg. His fitness is in question; he'll be considerably more dangerous early. Oh, and he's lethal on free kicks.
Nani is Nani, except when he's not, which is a lot of the time. You could be forgiven if you thought his full name was The Mercurial Nani. He's a much more traditional winger than Ronaldo; he'll try to get in dangerous crosses most of the time, with occasional forays inside. Beasley should get to be more aggressive because Nani's crosses are more dangerous than the left-footed Atsu, and if Portugal goes with the guy they probably will they'll have much more dangerous targets in the box. He is capable of moments of magic.
With Hugo Almeida out, Portugal has generally turned to the strapping, Altidorean Eder as their center forward. He's a hold-up guy and aerial threat, very physical. The aging, wily Helder Postiga is another option, but in the heat one dollar says the 26 year old coming on gets the nod over the 31-year old who's struggled to see the field for his club of late.
Eder's a pretty good matchup for the US, as they've always been an outfit that deals with crosses well, and that's' where Eder is at his best.
The early goal and Altidore injury saw the US drop back into a 4-4-2 most of the night against Ghana instead of the diamond. A lot of that was just the USA's inability to keep possession. In a game that figures to feature the USA with more of the ball, I would expect something more diamond-y, but also more aggressive on the wings on offense as the US tries to pull Portugal out of shape. More about that in a bit.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
No reason to change with the center backs turning in terrific performances, Cameron especially, and the backup options on the outside seeming scary. Chandler in particular has seemed to wilt when the temperature gets turned up. Though Beasley is much older he's used to he conditions as he plays in Mexico. He also weighs about 90 pounds and has never, ever seemed tired.
Alternatives include Brooks if Besler is not ready to go and a potential shakeup at one of the outside back spots. I think changes would be silly. They either involve exposing an untested player to Ronaldo or playing said player on the left, where they are uncomfortable.
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley
Bradley needs to be Bradley
Jones and Bradley are obvious; Beckerman is almost certainly going to be included as well, as the US can count on him to be in annoying positions when Ronaldo attempts to cut inside.
The fourth midfielder could be either Bedoya or Zusi. I think Bedoya will be preferred because he's more active defensively and has the pace to zip past Dempsey as he drops into the midfield, about which more later. Zusi would not be a huge surprise, as he quickly showed his quality once inserted with that corner. Zusi has a knack for long, defense-splitting passes that should be available. I expect both to play.
This might look more like a 4-2-3-1 as the US should be pressuring whoever Portugal's defensive mid is, especially if it is Carvalho. Meanwhile, expect Beckerman to shade towards Ronaldo's side with Jones providing more cover and less upfield surging than he has in the last couple games.
FORWARD: Johannsson, Dempsey
The "false nine" thing is popular because it drags center backs around. If Dempsey drops off the defensive line to collect the ball, Portugal is faced with a decision: give the USA's most creative player time and space or try to shut him down by running one of their CBs at him. Germany exploited this even when Pepe was available; without Pepe around it seems like the best way for the US to proceed is to have Dempsey drop back and flank him with two guys who can run past him when someone steps out to meet him.
Then you get things like this:
The biggest spot to attack Portugal is undoubtedly their left rear channel. This is the area of the field that is typically defended by Bruno Alves, Fabio Coentrão … and Miguel Veloso.
It’s the flaw of Bento’s system because Ronaldo tends to stay high and Moutinho tend to get pulled out to cover that space. This reverberates down the defense.
Germany incessantly attacked this area on Monday. (Has it been mentioned what a masterclass Jogi Low put on?). Thomas Muller’s haul-down came from there. The second goal (above) came from there and there was another quality chance knocked over the bar just by Götze.
Germany deployed this to good effect.
Low’s decision to play a 4-3-3 with a false 9 was incredibly insightful. While Pepe is fast, Alves is not, and Götze’s constant movement towards the midfield pulled Alves into a position that he could not recover from.
With Alves hurting, all the more reason to force Portugal players to step out into the midfield.
The wild guess here is that Dempsey is a striker who drops back and Johannsson comes in to dart past him; Johannson will also be the target of those long diagonal balls on which he should be able to outpace the center backs as Portugal's outside backs get forward. He's not a target forward but against a depleted Portugal back four he can have a similar effect as an outlet valve.
The other runner should rotate depending on the situation: Bradley, Bedoya/Zusi, and Johnson will all be candidates.
SUBS: Expect Wondolowski if the US needs a goal, and probably even if they don't. The combination of slowish, exhausted center backs and Wondo's evil, constant movement makes him a very attractive option. It's probably going to be a prematch plan for Johannsson to give his all for 60 minutes and then exit.
Whoever of Bedoya or Zusi does not start will probably replace the other as the US keeps its right flank fresh against Ronaldo.
The third sub would be context dependent: if the US needs a goal they would probably lift Beckerman for Diskerud. If they're in the lead they might not use it at all; if they do the introduction of Yedlin or Chandler would probably be the move.
Argentine Nestor Quintana has been assigned the game. He did the 1-1 draw between South Korea and Russia in which there wasn't a whole lot to get wrong. He tends to issue a lot of cards, FWIW.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
winger stops tracking Johnson, and that happened
Get Fabian involved on offense. But Ronaldo? The thing is: Ronaldo don't do D, so you can find a lot of room behind him and pull Portugal out of shape. That requires covering, and the US can do that reasonably well by sliding Cameron over—EPL rightback, remember—and keeping Beckerman shaded to the right. That also means Beasley has to stay back, but that's okay.
It's not ideal for Johnson to get caught upfield. The risks are worth it. Johnson is one of the USA's most dynamic offensive players no matter where he is. This is an opportunity for him to find a bunch of room, as he tends to cut into the very right-hand channel that Germany exposed so ruthlessly.
The US can cover for him. If you squint, it actually looks like this was the plan from day one: Johnson isn't terrific defensively; Cameron is the most mobile central defender the US has. As long as the US is cognizant of Johnson's surges they will be fine.
Wear out the center backs. Long diagonal passes into the channels will pull those guys into uncomfortable positions and wear them down. The US can get its pressure relief from Johannsson thanks to the setup here. Then they can bring in a poacher in an ideal situation.
Keep possession. The US was pretty dire at this after Altidore went out, and large parts of the problem were due to nothing other than US players making crappy passes. A repeat of that is an alarming possibility. It should be easier against a team that won't be inclined to press.
Avoid issuing dangerous free-kicks. They are extremely, extremely dangerous against Portugal. Ronaldo is crazy good at shooting from them, and Alves (if he plays) is a major danger on crosses from them. Easier said than done with the king of stepovers, I know.
TIE THE GAME. #tiethegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES