Good morning, everyone. Luckily for you, I’ve gotten over Bosnia’s tragic loss last night and elected not to write about how sad I was. For the record, I don’t think Nigeria’s goal was preceded by a foul. In the EPL, that would never be called. But I digress. Now to today’s main event – I don’t know how I’m going to wait. I’ll probably end up working out this morning to get the nerves out. The Belgium-Russia game at noon will keep me occupied and happy after, but the South Korea-Algeria game won’t be one that can keep the negative thoughts away. I’ll end up thinking about how scary Cristiano Ronaldo is for roughly four hours straight before kickoff. That can’t be healthy.
Despite how scary Cristiano Ronaldo is, the USA has a good chance of winning this game and sealing a place in the knockout round before having to face Germany, something that going in, none of us expected would be a possibility. With Germany not yet safe, I won’t want to go into the game with the Germans needing anything from it, and I would guess Jürgen Klinsmann would agree. The USA’s chance to advance is now. A tie or a loss today wouldn’t be fatal, but we need to play for the win. Thursday would be awfully nervy if we were to drop points in this game. However, the notion that I would be saying that anything but three points would be considered dropped points shows how high American hopes are. We believe.
The most important aspect of tonight’s game is stopping Cristiano Ronaldo. It seems obvious, but he cannot be the one to beat the U.S. We are smarter than that. Follow the model that Germany laid out and make everyone else beat you. If Ronaldo gets even a yard of space, the U.S. could regret it instantly, but with everyone else on that team lacking confidence right now, they might be vulnerable on the big stage. We all know Ronaldo will show up, but will his teammates be able to keep their cool in front of the net if a chance arises? Recent play suggests not.
As far as stopping Ronaldo, I would give Kyle Beckerman the task of essentially man-marking Ronaldo anytime the ball is in Portugal’s attacking half. Klinsmann should tell him to leave the rest of the defensive midfield duties to Jermaine Jones, so that he can prevent Ronaldo from receiving the ball easily. Second, Fabian Johnson can never be left alone against Ronaldo. Alejandro Bedoya will have to be especially disciplined. He might be the key to this match. If he doesn’t get caught too far upfield, he should be able to provide cover for Johnson, who quite simply cannot defend Ronaldo on his own. Someone always has to be watching him, communicating his runs to the rest of the back four. Shutting him down entirely won’t be possible, but bottling him up is.
With so much defensive discipline needed to stop Ronaldo, the U.S. might find it hard to send extra runners into the box when we are on the front foot. As a result, I would not like to see Clint Dempsey up top alone as some people are suggesting. I’d start Chris Wondolowski and prepare Aaron Johannsson to come on late in the second half to run at defenders with tired legs. While Wondolowski is no Jozy Altidore, he does a lot of things well, and will be able to hold up play more effectively than Johannsson would. He also has better instincts inside the six, and might have a better shot at grabbing an ugly goal in a scrum in front of the net.
The biggest challenge offensively will be creating chances without many men upfield. Michael Bradley will need to be at his best if the U.S. hopes to score, as he is one of very few players on this team that can take on defenders on his own and find the perfect ball. He was pretty quiet against Ghana, so I expect him to bounce back nicely today. If the U.S. scores, the goal will be set up by Bradley. But while the U.S. might be tempted to bring a lot of men forward for set pieces to snag another goal like John Brooks’s, they’ll need at least three men back as opposed to the normal one or two when they take them. Counter attacks off set pieces might be when Ronaldo beats us.
My final point before my prediction is this: Portugal’s defense without Pepe and Fabio Coentrao isn’t as bad as American fans are believing it is. Bruno Alves is a beast in the middle, and his fellow defenders are no slouches. Underestimating the Portuguese after seeing only the Germans play them would not be smart. Allow yourself to believe, but don’t think for one second that this match will be easy even if Ronaldo is somehow contained.
I think the final score will be United States 1 Portugal 1. If Klinsmann stresses defensive discipline, there won’t be many chances for the Americans. But I think Chris Wondolowski converts one if he starts. It will be a particularly ugly goal scored by a body part other than his feet or his head, but it will be worth its weight in gold. However, I think Ronaldo has a moment of brilliance in the second half to put his team on his back. There will be nothing the U.S. can do. Tim Howard will make a few spectacular saves, but won’t have quite enough to deny Ronaldo a goal in the end. It will be a valuable point, but we’ll still have a long way to go to qualify for the knockout stage after this game.
Belgium 2 Russia 0
After struggling for much of the match against Algeria, Belgium found their stride in a big way towards the end of that game. Today will be more like that. I like Eden Hazard to dazzle in this one after a relatively quiet first match. I don’t think he’ll score, but he’ll be the best player on the pitch. Romelu Lukaku will redeem himself as well against Russia, heading in a first half corner. The second goal will come from Kevin De Bruyne on a break. Russia won’t have much going for them and Fabio Capello will be left looking for answers.
South Korea 1 Algeria 1
Algeria will be the better team for most of the match, but South Korea will score first through Park Chu-Young. He’s been an Arsenal striker for three years now and I’ve never watched him score. So he has to do it today. His goal will be well taken too, confusing every Gooner around the world. Sofiane Feghouli scored from the spot for Algeria against Russia, and this time he’ll score from open play. Both goalies will be called into action a lot today. But ultimately, neither side will be able to find the winner, and Group H will remain a mess going into the final day.
Despite my pick of a draw for the U.S., I’m quietly optimistic. I do believe. Let’s do this.