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World Cup Match Preview

ASN Analysis: Here's How The U.S. Will Beat Portugal

That's right—we said will. Another U.S. World Cup victory is there for the taking, and ASN's Blake Thomsen details how Jurgen Klinsmann's team should defeat Portugal on Sunday in Manaus.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
June 20, 2014
12:04 PM
FOR NOW, THE UNITED STATES is sitting pretty, tied for first in the group and likely needing just a draw to feel quite good about its qualification chances. But a loss to Portugal would change the narrative and mood surrounding U.S. camp very quickly, setting up what would probably be a must-win showdown with World Cup contenders Germany.

As we did against Ghana, let’s take a look at Portugal’s strengths, weaknesses, and how the U.S. can approach its hobbled-yet-high-class opponent.


Well, that escalated quickly. Most observers figured the U.S. would be facing a Portugal side with zero points at this stage, but few could have foreseen the extent of the damage that Portugal would have endured, both on the scoreboard and to its personnel. Top center back Pepe was suspended after a foolish headbutt on Thomas Muller. Left back Fabio Coentrao, also of Real Madrid, will miss the rest of the tournament after suffering a severe groin strain against Germany. Aging target man Hugo Almeida is the third casualty, with an NHL-esque unspecified leg injury. And Cristiano Ronaldo is clearly not fully fit, so much so that ASN’s Noah Davis has even speculated that Portugal might be better off without him.

Elsewhere, there appear to be clear rifts within the squad, with Ronaldo at the center of most of them. He was seen repeatedly berating teammates for not getting him the ball enough in the blowout 4-0 loss against Germany.

Put simply, Portugal is a wounded animal. It seems likely that this will end one of two ways—either the Portuguese will desperately rally together for a surprisingly impressive performance, or they will implode, mirroring the likes of Spain in this World Cup and France and Italy in 2010 as European giants who crashed out spectacularly in the group stage. As Michael Bradley told ESPN before the tournament, “This will be a World Cup where the teams that do well will suffer.” The U.S.’s task will be to do everything possible—via a combination of smart tactics and unmatchable desire—to make sure Portugal reaches a point of suffering that it simply cannot handle.

The team that the U.S. will face is a bit unpredictable given the injuries and poor form of many players, but Paulo Bento is notoriously inflexible with his lineup, so we can be reasonably confident that the Yanks will see something like this narrow 4-3-3.

Possible changes to this setup include the precociously talented William Carvalho for Miguel Veloso at defensive midfield and Eder for Helder Postiga up top. Those are largely like-for-like changes, though, and won't affect Portugal's approach too much.

In defense, the losses of Pepe especially and Coentrao as well will badly hurt Portugal. Pepe represents much of what is bad in soccer—violent challenges and shameful play-acting are standard fare for him—but he's also a genuinely world-class center back, and Portugal suffers a huge drop-off with the arrival of the lumbering Ricardo Costa or Luis Neto in his place. At left back, Andre Almeida is a significant attacking downgrade from Coentrao, and with just six caps, he's a less experienced and accomplished defender as well.

At its core, Portugal is a counterattacking side, built around quality central midfielders and lightning wingers. But with Ronaldo far from 100% and Nani continuing to look like he’s forgotten how to play soccer, much of Portugal’s famous threat on the counter—see video below for Ronaldo’s sublime counterattacking display to clinch Portugal’s World Cup berth—has been diminished.

The above video is reminder enough, though, for the U.S. to take Portugal very, very seriously. Whatever his fitness, Ronaldo is still a beast. And last time we checked, Joao Moutinho is still fully fit and ready to unleash his trademark killer through balls.


As I detailed on Wednesday, Jurgen Klinsmann’s biggest task ahead of Sunday’s match is deciding how to reshape his team to cope with the loss of Jozy Altidore. This writer thinks that the 4-2-3-1 is preferable, as it would allow the U.S. to continue its recent defensive stability while also helping maintain possession of the ball, as well as posing an attacking threat in Portugal’s very vulnerable wide areas.

Pictured above via ASN’s Starting XI Tool is the most likely look, but some in the ASN community and beyond are shrewdly suggesting that Fabian Johnson could be moved up the field at the expense of Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya, and then Timmy Chandler or DeAndre Yedlin could be moved to right back. A wildcard option would keep Johnson in midfield and see Geoff Cameron shift to right back and John Brooks join Matt Besler in the middle, but this is the least likely of all of these options.

The 4-2-3-1’s biggest selling point would be the increased possession that the U.S. would be able to maintain compared to recent games. With five ball-playing midfielders, the Yanks would have no problem holding the ball for long stretches, which will be essential in the possibly horrendous conditions in Manaus. The Christmas tree—and especially the Mixmas-tree set seen below—would allow for similarly strong possession ability, but it has limitations in terms of general attacking threat.

The diamond—shown as a true 4-4-2 below—is not without benefits, but the potential costs of limited ball possession in the brutal heat could be enough to justify shelving it for this game at least.

Aside from possession, the U.S. formation will also dictate the activity of Portugal’s fullbacks. If the U.S. opts for a Christmas tree or especially the diamond look, Portugal’s fullbacks would be forced to sit a little deeper due to the need to support their center backs against the increased numbers in the middle of the U.S. attacking third.

But Portugal’s fullbacks staying deeper and therefore out of the attack isn’t ideal for the U.S. anyway. The farther up the field that we see the Portuguese fullbacks—who, with Coentrao out, aren’t huge attacking threats anyway—the more dangerous the U.S.’s counters will be, with abundant space to push into once the ball is won. This space will be generated not only by the vacant fullbacks, but also by the comical lack of defensive work rate of wingers Ronaldo and Nani. A goal or two stemming from counters into space in the wide areas could determine the outcome of the game, and aside from possession, that’s the most important reason for the Yanks to go with a 4-2-3-1.

Though the goal seen below doesn’t come at the expense of a fullback caught up the field, it’s a similar pattern of attack to the one that the U.S. could utilize to devastating effect on Sunday.

Against Portugal, let’s say it could be Michael Bradley in Clint Dempsey’s role in the above video, Graham Zusi in the same spot, and Dempsey now applying the finishing touch.

Wide area counterattacking threat aside, there is one enormous factor in favor of the Christmas tree/diamond, which will be discussed in the next section.


The truth hurts but it needs to be said: Michael Bradley had a very poor game on the ball last time out. His passing accuracy wasn’t bad, but it was his repeated giveaways in potentially dangerous areas that contributed to the U.S. struggling mightily to relieve Ghana’s nonstop pressure. By virtue of sheer regression to the mean and his consummate professionalism, it’s safe to assume that Bradley will be far better against Portugal, which will be essential to the U.S. cause.

It seems a near certainty that he, Jermaine Jones, and Kyle Beckerman will all play for the Yanks, and that will give the U.S. a numerical match (and an athleticism advantage) against Raul Meireles, Moutinho, and Veloso/Carvalho. As mentioned before, ball retention will be significant in the heat of Manaus—note how Italy recognized this and responded by completing the highest percentage of passes in a Cup game since 1966, and picking its spots to expend energy in the attack.

Portugal will be far more obliging than Ghana was in terms of conceding possession, as it lacks the collective athleticism or work rate to do too much pressing. The U.S. needs to take advantage of this and smartly retain the ball for extended periods.

Perhaps even more importantly for the U.S. in the middle, though, is pressing Portugal’s central midfielders and limiting their ability to pick out incisive passes behind the U.S. back four. This can be aided with a relatively deep U.S. back line—which will minimize the space for Ronaldo and Nani to run into—but responsibility falls primarily on U.S. central players.

In the earlier Ronaldo hat trick video, we saw the danger of allowing Moutinho space to pick out through balls. And good teams have hurt the U.S. repeatedly with this in the past, with two highly prominent examples over the past 13 months.

First, against Belgium in late May 2013, Steven Defour was given enough time to read the Marketplace section of the Wall Street Journal before easily picking out Christian Benteke for a simple goal.

Worryingly, it’s Jones failing to apply pressure and Besler and DaMarcus Beasley beat badly over the top.

More recently against Ukraine, the U.S. was repeatedly cut to pieces with similar passes, as seen on Andriy Yarmolenko’s opening goal. But wait, wasn’t that a largely “B” American team that played against Ukraine? Um, yes, but note the guilty parties in the below video.

It’s Jones again failing to pressure the midfield passer, and potential starter Brooks losing out over the top. Two things to note about the above goals:

1) Both occurred without the Bradleytron on the pitch. Given his tactical awareness and endless energy supply, Bradley is particularly adept at pressuring the ball in these types of situations. His presence, wherever he is deployed, will be welcome.

2) A Christmas tree or diamond formation would be quite helpful in limiting these passes. Both of those formations feature more bodies in the middle of the field (including all the way up to the strikers), and thus more available players to press deep-lying midfield passers. The relative inability to pressure deep passers may be the 4-2-3-1’s biggest shortcoming against Portugal, but with Bradley in a No. 10 role and covering up gobs of ground, the U.S. should still be all right. Bradley is smart enough to know that he needs to focus his energy on Meireles and especially Moutinho. Veloso and Carvalho (one of whom will start) are good players, but both are more inclined to take the safe option in distribution.


This whole section is preceded by the caveat that no one outside of the Portugal camp really knows how Ronaldo is feeling. These notorious “ice-pack” pictures could easily be mind games, designed to make the U.S. believe that Ronaldo is nowhere near his best and might not play. There’s also the real possibility that Ronaldo is seriously hurt and may indeed not even see the field. The point is that no one knows, but to take a middle ground, we’ll assume Ronaldo is around the 75% status that he displayed against both Germany on Monday and Atletico Madrid back in the Champions League final.

Even at 75%, Ronaldo is an enormous threat. Some of his important attributes—ability to dribble past players with ease, otherworldly fitness and athleticism, and huge threat on the counter—are lessened somewhat. But these attributes are not taken away completely. And Ronaldo is still a lethal finisher, capable of changing a game with one precise strike.

On this Portugal team, Ronaldo will certainly get adequate chances to make an impact. Against Germany, it felt like when Portugal was in possession, the field formed something of a funnel shape with Ronaldo at the bottom, and all Portugal attacks were guided toward its star player as soon as possible.

This strategy—which is perpetuated by Ronaldo screaming at those who don’t immediately give him the ball—hurts Portugal in a couple big ways. For starters, it’s predictable and thus somewhat easy to defend. But even more so, this is an unwise tactic because it takes away Ronaldo’s biggest strength—movement without the ball.

Of course, Ronaldo can be spectacular on the dribble, but he’s far more potent and gets a far higher percentage of his goals via latching onto through balls or finishing crosses with lethal first-time shots. That’s what we see with Real Madrid—Ronaldo leaves Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Angel di Maria, and Gareth Bale to do the chance creation. From there, it’s up to Ronaldo to do what he’s best in the world at—score with one or two touches on the end of a cross, through ball, or loose ball in the box.

If Portugal wants to maximize its star player’s considerable talents, its attacks would end with Ronaldo, not start with him. Portugal rarely plays in this manner, though, and the U.S. should do everything it can to encourage the Portugal way. That means the Yanks don’t need to cut off Ronaldo’s supply when numbers are back and the winger is near midfield. In that area of the field, especially with Ronaldo in this state, he’s not going to hurt you. As we saw against Germany, the more likely outcome is Ronaldo trying to do too much with a dribble or pass and then turn the ball over.

Where the U.S. really needs to key on limiting Ronaldo’s chances is 1) when Moutinho and Meireles have the ball and the U.S. back line is high, and 2) when Portugal has the ball in the attacking third and Ronaldo is away from the play.

In both of those situations, Ronaldo is in spots from where he can use his lethal movement and finishing to score goals. In the above video, we saw what Ronaldo can do with service from central midfielders. If you’ve got seven minutes, you can see all of Ronaldo’s 51 goals for Madrid this season.

Note the incredibly high incidence of one-touch finishes in the box. This is Ronaldo’s game—not the fancy step-overs and occasional wonder-strike from distance—and this is what the Yanks need to focus on. The U.S. can limit the through ball chances through a combination of pressure on central midfielders and Ronaldo’s lack of full fitness. But Ronaldo’s sub-100% status makes him only minimally less dangerous in the box. With this in mind, it’s absolutely essential that Nani and Joao Pereira are not given clear opportunities to cross from the right and Moutinho is not given time and space in the U.S. attacking third.

If the U.S. cuts off those two crucial supply lines, Ronaldo should be containable, especially given his lack of fitness that limits his ability to do damage with the ball at his feet far from goal.

A final note: don’t cower in fear every time Ronaldo sizes up a direct free kick and takes his signature waddling-on-his-toes run up to the ball. Though you may have seen the occasional highlight reel free kick, he’s not actually uniquely good at free kicks. It’s just that he takes such an extraordinarily high number of them that he’s bound to score a few stunners from time to time.


Astute ASN readers will note that my Ghana prediction proved quite accurate—Clint Dempsey scored a first half goal, Ghana scored around the 80th minute, and the U.S. won 2-1. (I’ll continue typing once my hand is near the keyboard again and not patting myself on the back).

This time around, I’m thinking three more points for the U.S., due to a potent combination of smart tactics, superior fitness, and Portugal’s collective inability to suffer in the face of a more committed, better prepared opponent.

How it’s going to go down?

It’ll be a stalemate for a while, with the U.S. seeing far more of the ball than it did against Ghana but not doing a whole lot with it. After a few half chances for either side, the game will be scoreless heading into halftime. Knowing that result would suit the U.S., Portugal will come out with a slightly more aggressive approach in the second half. But with a dull attack and inadequate desire to sufficiently track back, Portugal will leave the space for the U.S. to strike around the 60th minute via Bradley, who will loudly respond to his critics with a well-taken goal.

Portugal will be visibly broken, knowing its World Cup is just about over, and won’t have the requisite spirit to fight back in the punishing conditions. Johannsson will add a late goal to seal a hard-fought but ultimately comfortable win for the Yanks:

U.S. 2, Portugal 0

OK, your turn. Is Blake Thomsen delusional? Can the Yanks really pick up an easy win in the World Cup, against Portugal no less? Let’s hear your thoughts in the Comments section.

Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributing editor who will respond to your thoughts below and on Twitter. Follow him there, and comment here.

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