Brazil ’14: Analyzing U.S. vs. Portugal and if it will send the Yankees home

As ineffective as the world’s greatest player was in the match between the U.S. and Germany, he’s still the world’s greatest player.

Many talked about Cristiano Ronaldo’s lingering injuries before the game, and many will point to his fitness as the reason behind his uncharacteristic blunders around the U.S. goal. Yet what is strange about his errant play is that, athletically, he appeared on par with his usual performance level; he moved forward with speed, he leapt high for headers, and he was quick to 50-50 balls. What was unusual about this game’s Ronaldo was his finishing, with his shots flying sideways and upwards.

And still, as feeble as his team looked without his regular havoc, Ronaldo showed what a difference he can make at any second with his spot-on ball into Varela for the equalizing header.

What was funny about that play was how, with Ronaldo swinging the ball in from the wing, it contrasted coach Paulo Bento’s usual strategy for his star player; Ronaldo is best on the left wing, but Bento tends to use him more centrally as a target in the box, practically as a forward. Yet this move presented a couple problems against the Americans: first, right back Fabian Johnson had a splendid game going forward and contributing to the attack, as Ronaldo was frequently missing from that flank to mark Johnson (as I wrote before, Johnson was always going to be a key piece in using Ronaldo’s offense as an edge for the U.S.). Second, as great as CR7 is as a target in the penalty area, he still needs quality crosses, which, until his very own that assisted the tying goal, were painfully missing.

Portugal winger Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo

Aging, slowing, and hurting, this Portugal side’s only real advantage over the U.S. was its ball movement, meaning that it’d be important for the American midfield to be extra effective. And it was. Known more for his defensive skills, Jermaine Jones pushed forward with the ball, looking to directly feed the attack. Him and Michael Bradley were constant concerns for Portugal, as they looked to push towards the opposing backline, finding through passes and shots of their own. Defensively, those two along with Kyle Beckerman gave little space to João Moutinho and Raul Meireles, the main threats to create opportunities in the middle for Portugal.

I thought before that it wouldn’t be shocking for the Yanks to advance from this group, but I never suspected Portugal to be the worse team in this matchup. For a team that doesn’t look to sit back and pass the ball around, the U.S. did well to finish the contest with 48% of the possession. And between Matt Besler’s disruptiveness in the box and DeMarcus Beasley’s surprising sturdiness against Nani on the right wing, the American defense was extremely impressive.

As casually as it seemed to have happened, Varela’s goal makes a significant difference in how the rest of the games in the group will be played. For Portugal, it will need to defeat Ghana to reach four points, which is the amount Germany and the U.S. currently have as the leaders of the group. If it does end up winning, Portugal will need a major swing in the goal-differential standings, where it is far behind with a difference of -4.

Tied with Portugal with just one point, Ghana is in a better position to advance; it has shown more versatility than Portugal and has far less injury concerns. With a Ghana win and a U.S. loss of two or more goals, the Americans would be sent home. Sadly for us Americans, that, to me, is the most likely outcome; given how Portugal and Ghana have looked in group play so far, I think Ghana is the more likely victor in their encounter. The U.S. was hoping that Germany would have clinched a spot in the next round by now and thus have less to play for against the Yanks, but the Germans’ tie against Ghana complicates that hope. With everything to play for, Germany will put its best players on the field, and, despite their win over Ghana, I don’t think the Americans will have a chance; the U.S. is too prone to fatigue, too prone to commit errors, and too slow in the center of defense to stay with the Germans. Germany’s major weakness is its lack of speed on defense, but Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya won’t bring the same threat on the sides as Ghana’s wingers did against Germany.

Interestingly enough, it would be of mutual interest for the U.S. and Germany to lay down once the whistle blows and each take a point, putting the two teams out of reach for Ghana and Portugal.

With that being unlikely, Ronaldo’s game tying wonder-cross may very well be what sends the Americans out of Brazil.