Preview: Nats vs Portugal

Submitted by Brian on June 20th, 2014 at 11:58 AM


WHAT USA vs Portugal
WHERE Arena da Amazonia
Manaus, Brazil
WHEN 5 PM Eastern
LINE Hat eatin'

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…


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.

GOALIE: Howard.

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

Michael 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.

Michael Bradley

Wondo time

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.


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





June 20th, 2014 at 12:10 PM ^

Cameron has played so well he is rated as the #3 player in the WC so far.


If you are wondering how they came up with the rankings:

Previously used at the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009 and 2013 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Castrol Index uses the latest FIFA tracking technology to capture data on each player, which will then be analysed by a team of Castrol Performance Analysts. Every pass, tackle and move on the field is measured and assessed to see if it has a positive or negative impact on a team's ability to score or concede a goal. The team of Castrol Performance Analysts crunch all the data to award each player a Castrol Index score out of 10 - the stronger the player's performance, the higher their score.

Yinka Double Dare

June 20th, 2014 at 12:28 PM ^

Bedoya being the faster of the two and a better defensive player, I'd be surprised if he doesn't start. They can tell him to blow it out and not worry about trying to last all 90 even moreso than Iceman.  By the time Zusi would come in to take Bedoya's spot, CR7 shouldn't be quite as zippy.




June 20th, 2014 at 1:04 PM ^

I think one of the keys to Sunday's match is Michael Bradley. I'm not that concerned with his subpar (for him) performance on Monday because he's our best outfield player but we need him to make fewer turnovers and press upfield with more vigor. 

His involvement and possession, even in a forward role, will do much to wear out Portugal's beleagured back line. Additionally, keeping possession helps give our defenders a well-deserved rest, something we couldn't do for 75+ minutes Monday night.

I expect Bradley, in a hot and humid climate, to be huge on Sunday. 


June 20th, 2014 at 1:07 PM ^

to express my concern about the value of Ronaldo's playing career; if it's truly in the balance, I think we can all agree that the important thing is the health of the player, and naturally that would mean resting his knee, starting immediately, rather than putting further strain on it.


June 20th, 2014 at 1:37 PM ^

Ronaldo is a totally shit free kick taker. It's ignored because every once in a while he scores a beautiful free kick, but he puts a staggering number of his free kicks fifteen feet over the bar or directly into the wall. The numbers bear this out too, he puts fewer free kicks on target than anyone else in a Big European league who is allowed to take them regularly. When Real were chasing a goal in the Champions League final they started letting Di Maria take them instead.



June 20th, 2014 at 2:49 PM ^

that he's one of the best at a free kick looking to score, but he's shit poor trying to set someone else up to the point that he never even bothers. If he's taking a kick, he's going for a corner and that's it, if someone else is then it's probably a set play.


June 20th, 2014 at 1:41 PM ^

Pepe's disbelieving smile is honestly even more offensive than the crap he did that earned him the red card in the first place.  What the hell man, you hacked a guy in the face and then headbutted him while he was on the ground and you're surprised that you're being sent off?


June 20th, 2014 at 1:41 PM ^

"Portugal fell apart like a Michigan running play against Germany..." 

I know Brian is relentlessly negative about our prospects but I think with the maturation of our O-line and a better OC we should be able to move the ball against Germany this year.


June 20th, 2014 at 1:55 PM ^

I ususally don't like to talk much about the abstract/mental side of sports becuase it isn't quantifiable. But the US has more often than not played above the sum of their parts, while Portugal often play as if everyone is on the pitch with the sole purpose of getting Ronaldo the ball. Fair enough, he is the best player in the world right now, but he doesn't make his teammates better in any way. I think the US definitely has the mental edge and certainly play better as a team. Portugal's individuals are better than the US's but looking at the two teams as collectives, it is pretty even. 


June 20th, 2014 at 2:57 PM ^

That is just not true. Ronaldo is easily top two in the world. No one has the combination of athleticism and skill that he does. Name four players better than him, please. Messi, then who? Suarez? I would disagree, but I could see the argument. But three more after that? No way. 


June 20th, 2014 at 3:18 PM ^

The US has a very tangible edge coming in to this game. Portugal is worse with a hurting Ronaldo then they are without him. As you say, Ronaldo doesn't make his teammates better because he forces them to play an unnatural style of soccer. In the Germany game, Portugal seemed more focused on getting Ronaldo the ball then they were on scoring. 

I am expecting more of the same against the US. Ronaldo will be desperate to have a better performance than he did against Germany and will make that the team’s number one priority. This is fortunate for the US as Portugal would beat us fairly handily straight up. 

That being said, the game still depends on Bradley. After re-watching the Ghana game, the US didn’t play as poorly as I had originally thought -- with the exception of Bradley. 


June 20th, 2014 at 2:00 PM ^

I also have my doubts about the attacking forays we expect to see. TBH, both of these teams looked tired in their first game. I'm hoping that is because both had to defend for so long. 

The combination of Klinsmann bragging about how grueling their pre-tournament camps are and the subsequent injuries against Ghana worries me. 

Mr. Yost

June 20th, 2014 at 2:33 PM ^

Win 1-0 and GTFO out since you don't have Altidore up front.

The other part of me says to try and win 4-2 since their back 4 is beat to shit.

Which part of me should I listen to?


June 20th, 2014 at 2:55 PM ^

Trying to go guns blazing against a team with much better attacking players won't end well. Neither will trying to defend for 90 min. You can't say "try and go out and win 1-0 or 4-2" because that implies scoring will somehow be an afterthought. 

E.L. blue fan

June 20th, 2014 at 3:20 PM ^

I know it isn't ideal to shuffle around a lot of players but I wonder if this might work:






Johnson is one of our most dangerous players going forward but only average defensively, so why not put him at left mid for this game so he can get forward and take advantage of Coentrao's absense and not have to try to defend against Ronaldo. Putting Cameron at right back, where he played all year in the EPL, seems like a much better option defensively against Ronaldo and Brooks seems like a viable option at center back after the Ghana game.  

Its not ideal having Besler-Brooks as your center back pairing with the lack of experience but I am really worried Johnson at right back both that he won't be able to get involved offensively and that he might get abused defensively. 



June 21st, 2014 at 5:11 AM ^

I think the problem here is the defensive midfield. Beckerman and Jones both defend well, but neither is very skilled passing. At least at a World Cup level. Will Bradley have to drop back to collect the ball from the defense and then attack from there? That would make it difficult for whoever plays up top to see much of the ball and would probably hinder the attack. I also don't trust Jones with the ball in central locations. Just too much risk there. He thinks he is a better attacking player than he is. This is a good formation when Altidore is healthy, because then Bradley can move into Jones' or Beckerman's spot and Dempsey into Bradley's 


June 22nd, 2014 at 11:51 AM ^

Lots of teams have overachieved, but a the same time, many of the stars have stepped up to the plate. I think Ronaldo will deliver today, but I won't be surprised if he doesn't.


August 16th, 2014 at 11:45 AM ^

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