Mapping the Midfield
As the U.S. Men's National Team prepares to take on Portugal this Sunday, one message from U.S. players has become abundantly clear: there will be 10 other Portuguese players to worry about that are not named Cristiano Ronaldo.
"We have a lot of respect for Cristiano, he's a great player," midfielder Jermaine Jones told journalists before the team's training session on Thursday, the first in which it will being fine-tuning the strategy to be used in Manaus.
"But," he continued, "I think you have to have respect for the whole team of Portugal."
That's why, even as speculation swirls as to Ronaldo's injury status (and it is almost entirely speculation), the U.S. is staying focused on some of Portugal's other threats. Even without defender Pepe (suspended due to a red card received against Germany) and Fabio Coentrão (out for the tournament with a thigh injury), there are plenty of those threats to worry about.
Among Portugal's many key players, Raul Meireles stands out. The former Porto, Chelsea, and current Fenerbahce midfielder will be Jones' opposite in midfield; and one that mirrors Jones in several ways.
"Yeah, we both like tattoos," Jones said with a laugh. "He's one of those key players like I said. He knows what to do with the ball to make the game faster, and when to slow it down."
Jones knows this well, because the pair has crossed paths in multiple spots over the course of their careers. Jones and Meireles met twice this past season in the Turkish league, when Jones played for Besiktas. They have also previously met in the Champions League, when Jones played for Schalke 04 and Meireles for Porto.
Their matchup won't be a straight-up, like-for-like battle. But the players' familiarity with each other (not to mention their physical styles of play) will create one clash to watch in a game that will be full of them.
“In any big game, the battle that goes on in the midfield is so important. It goes such a long way on deciding who wins the game,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “Portugal is obviously a very different team than Ghana. They have a good mix of skillful, technical players, but still guys who physically are strong, are fast, guys who jump well.”
Besides the midfield, it will be also be key for the U.S. central defenders to deal with whoever starts up top in target man Hugo Almeida’s injury absence – the veteran Hélder Postiga, or the more physically-imposting Éder.
"We’re going to try to exploit their weaknesses, and use our game plan to our advantage, and make sure our lines are tight to make it very difficult for them to play when they use their strengths," defender Geoff Cameron said. "So we’ll try to counter attack.”
That's something Portugal may be looking to do a bit of itself. Throughout qualifying and especially in its two-legged playoff win against Sweden that sent it to the World Cup, Portugal has thrived on lulling teams forward, only to hit them on the break. That, according to Kyle Beckerman, is where Ronaldo can be extremely dangerous."We’ve seen games where the others team’s attacking looks dangerous, next thing you know they lose the ball, find Cristiano and it’s in the back of their net," Beckerman said. "It’s going to be something we’ll always be aware of. It’s going to take eleven guys playing offense and defense to win this game.”