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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: U.S. is in it to win it against Portugal

  • United States' Michael Bradley, center left, runs through obstacles with teammates during a training session at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. The U.S. will play Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

    United States' Michael Bradley, center left, runs through obstacles with teammates during a training session at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. The U.S. will play Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

  • United States' Michael Bradley, center left, runs through obstacles with teammates during a training session at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. The U.S. will play Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

    United States' Michael Bradley, center left, runs through obstacles with teammates during a training session at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. The U.S. will play Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

  • United States' Michael Bradley, center left, runs through obstacles with teammates during a training session at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. The U.S. will play Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)
  • United States' Michael Bradley, center left, runs through obstacles with teammates during a training session at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. The U.S. will play Portugal in group G of the 2014 soccer World Cup on June 22. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

The United States took the first step it needed to take at the World Cup. Now, can the Americans take the second? It’s a doozy.

The U.S. scored early, scored late and hung on in between in its opening 2-1 victory against Ghana on Monday. It may have been ugly, but at least it wasn’t as ugly as the 4-0 loss Portugal suffered against Germany in its first game at this World Cup.

Those two results, plus yesterday’s 2-2 draw between Germany and Ghana, mean the Americans could clinch a spot in the Round of 16 if they pull off an upset win over Portugal today. Getting out of this “Group of Death” would be a huge accomplishment for the U.S., and it would mark the first time it has ever advanced past the group stage in consecutive World Cups. Sure, the Americans will have to contend with Cristiano Ronaldo, voted the best player in the world for 2013, and a desperate Portuguese team, but that only adds to the excitement and entertainment.

“We have a lot of respect for that Portuguese team. It’s a very difficult situation for them now after that 4-0 defeat,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in a press conference earlier this week. “They are with their backs against the wall, so it makes it even more difficult to get a result, but that’s what you want, that’s what a World Cup is about. We also have the chance with a win to hopefully qualify already, so this can’t get any better.”

Well, it would be better if the Americans hadn’t suffered a rash of injuries on Monday, most notably to forward Jozy Altidore, but that wasn’t Klinsmann’s point. The win against Ghana put the U.S. in position to get out of the group. It added to the already heightened passion of American soccer fans at home (11.1 million watched the game on ESPN, the biggest soccer audience in the network’s history) and in Brazil (Americans have bought nearly 200,000 tickets, the most

for any visiting fans). It upped the sense of hope and possibility surrounding the U.S. team.

“We have the confidence now to go into that game and say we’re here, we want to beat you,” Klinsmann said. “We want to get in the next round, so our approach is not go into Manaus and defend a 1-1 or nil-nil or whatever it is. We go there and we want to win this game.”

Hearing the coach say he won’t play for a draw should entice a few more tie-hating American fans to watch today. But a tie would still leave the U.S. in good shape to get out of the group. A loss, however, means the Americans would need a tie or a win on Thursday against Germany, ranked No. 2 in the world, to advance to the Round of 16. And that’s asking a lot.

The U.S. did beat Portugal back in the World Cup in 2002. That was the same year the Americans advanced to the quarterfinals, which was their best showing since reaching the semifinals in the first World Cup in 1930. But those facts need some qualifying information. Only 13 teams competed in that inaugural World Cup in Uruguay, with only four of those coming from Europe, and the American team was led by six British-born players. And the 2002 Portugal team is not the same kind of beast the U.S. will face today.

The Portuguese finished 2002 as the No. 11 team in the FIFA world rankings and dropped to No. 17 the next year. This Portugal team is No. 4 in the rankings after finishing No. 5 last year. The U.S. is currently ranked No. 13.

Most importantly, the Portuguese didn’t have a player like Ronaldo back in 2002.

“He’s really a total player. He can score with his right foot, his left foot, his head. He’s fast and strong,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said on ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike show. “So it’s important that now everybody is keeping an eye on him and everybody is aware of where he is and the commitment is there from every guy to make it really hard on him.”

Portugal has other top quality players, like forward Nani and midfielders Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles. But the Portuguese also have major health concerns. Ronaldo has been battling a knee injury for months. Forward Hugo Almeida left the Germany match with an injury and is doubtful for today, and defender Fabio Coentrao is out after suffering a leg injury on Monday. And Portugal will be missing another piece from its back line as defender Pepe, arguably the team’s second best player, was given a red card against Germany, which means he’s suspended for today’s match.

Of course, the Americans have their own issues. Altidore, their most physical offensive presence, is out with a hamstring injury. Captain Clint Dempsey, the team’s most important offensive threat, had his nose broken against Ghana and may have to play in a mask. Defender Matt Besler (hamstring) and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya (hip) both picked up knocks on Monday. And the U.S. had a terrible time holding onto the ball against Ghana, a problem it will have to fix if it doesn’t want to spend all day chasing the Portuguese.

But the American defense was well-organized and fearless in its first match, and that was the team’s major concern heading into this tournament. And it’s unlikely that Bradley, the team’s main distributor, will play as poorly as he did on Monday, which means the possession stats won’t be so lopsided (Ghana held a ridiculous 60-40 advantage).

Plus, finding a way to win when they weren’t playing their best has surely given the Americans a confidence boost. Now, they just have to use it.

“For us at the moment, it’s all about trying to take advantage of the good situation we put ourselves in,” Bradley said. “We talked about winning the first game doesn’t mean anything if you go in and lose the second.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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