Saturday, June 21, 2014

USA v. Portugal - Post Germany-Ghana

Actually, post Germany-Ghana and post Argentina-Iran. And there is reason for both the US and Portugal to fear the match tomorrow. Real, tangible, fear. The kind of thing you can smell in the sweat on your skin, that you can taste in the back of your throat. Delicious drama it will be tomorrow.

Fear for the USA

Let's start with the player that has been the only real competition Christiano Ronaldo has had for the FIFA Player of the Year award for some time - Messi. He scored a fabulous goal in second half stoppage time to give Argentina a 1-0 victory - exactly the kind of danger that "CR7" presents Sunday to the US. (If you haven't seen Argentina-Iran, to a degree, I apologize but really, what have you been doing with your life today?)

Every time you see the US play conservatively, defensively, tactically at times tomorrow, remember that. And remember that Nani is on the other side and is anything but a slouch. Both wings represent severe danger to the US chances to advance. To be sure, the US will need to attack. Absolutely, parking the bus is certain failure. But at the same time, this a time for tactical advances - at specific times, specific moments in the game, specific situations. Not for anything near even half the time.

Fear for the Portuguese

Now let's talk about the tie. Ghana showed itself very capable of competing in the Group of Death today, which should embolden the US to a large degree. Yes, Portugal, the team that beat you rather badly - embarrassingly, in fact -  had to fight from behind to TIE the team that we beat on Monday. Let that sink in, y'all. The US beat the team that just made a team that owned you on Monday wet their pants.

The Reality

As with everything, the reality is somewhere in the middle, and both teams have to deal with the implications of today's result.

First, let's look at the numbers, then we can talk about What It Means afterwards.

A tie puts the table as so:

Germany on 4 points after 2 games
USA on 3 points after 1 game
Ghana on 1 point after 2 games
Portugal on 0 points after 1 game

This prevents Germany from advancing based on a result in the USA-Portugal match. More importantly, it keeps Ghana's hopes alive. More on that in a moment.

A few more facts based on just the math.

A USA win tomorrow and Los Estados Unidos is guaranteed to advance out of the Group of Death.
A draw tomorrow puts the US and German team on four points, with Portugal and Ghana on 1 each.
A Portugal win tomorrow leaves Germany at the top at 4 points, with Portugal and the US tied on 3 points and Ghana on 1 points.

What Does It All Mean

First off, as it relates to Matchday Three - Thursday - no matter what happens tomorrow, other than a US win, Ghana will have something to play for against Portugal. This should be in the heads of the Portuguese as they can't look for "if we win today, we will play a defeated Ghana and it will be easier." None of that. In fact, no matter what happens on Sunday, I could very well see Ghana winning on Thursday as they came out of the game today with enough confidence to be quite a handful.

As much trouble as Portugal have had with mental fortitude, that could very well play into a lack of belief and add an additional layer of pressure that will, as discussed before, grow exponentially as the minutes tick by on Sunday.

Second, it should give the US position more strength across the board - a level of confidence that what they accomplished on Monday was quite relevant and in no way superfluous. The opposite of if Ghana had gone into the game and gotten squashed - leaving the US thinking, "oy, we fought tooth and nail to beat them and Germany crushed them just like Portugal...."

Of course, especially those of us who follow major College Football know that who played who is an inexact science at the best of times. But frankly, as important as confidence and mentality is in the World Cup, I'll take any edge I can get.

Beyond that, though, none of that matters one whit if the US loses. Which brings us back to how to apply it.


This is an incredibly important game in the group - for every team. Portugal wins and everyone has something to play for on Thursday. Considering the way this World Cup has gone, that would be typical.

But for the US, the incredible opportunity that presents itself with a tie and the amazing reality of advancing after two games with a win have to be mouth-watering possibilities.

I think it starts with the reality that the US comes into the game from a distinct position of strength, at least in terms of their position in the group. And Portugal is a relatively known commodity. So take what I wrote earlier in "What are we going to do about this" and "Attacking Options", and let's get a little more specific.

I am all the more convinced that a 4-2-3-1 is called for. Actually, more of a 4-1-1-3-1 with Beckerman being the "stay at home at all times" d-mid and Jones being the second "keep defensive shape, but if the right situation presents itself, get forward in a safe way" d-mid, Bradley in the hole and Bedoya and Zusi on the wings.

Additionally, barring an amazing opportunity like what presented itself in the early moments of the US-Ghana match, stay home and stay compact, then find spots to put pressure on Portugal's unsettled back line, and for the love of all things, finish your chances.

Again, the longer the game goes, the more pressure will mount on Portugal. The trick is going to be finding times to possess high, and to attack. That has to happen, and it has to be effective when it does. Again, hence why Zusi is the player I peg to fill Altidore's spot on the lineup. But if the US can be tactically smart, situationally aware and take advantage of their chances - like they have against Mexico numerous times, including against them in the World Cup in 2002, as well as against Spain in 2009, a similar result is entirely possible.

Danger, Will Robinson - Danger!

It must be said, though, the vastly important difference between effective attacking at strategic times and what we saw for much of the Ghana match - an attempt to do just that (defend in an organized way, attack strategically) that frankly, failed. A large majority of the match, anything in the Ghana half was ineffective due to bad passing, bad decisions - generally, a lack of composure, not a lack of effort.

I don't think that will happen for a couple of reasons. First, I think a big part of that had to do with a formation not designed to do that, but rather to attack, and second, the injuries, especially to Altidore and Dempsey. Finally, the abject ineffectiveness of Michael Bradley. Relatively speaking of course, but I don't think we have seen a game that poor from Bradley in quite some time - certainly not since he originally went to AS Roma.

So going into the game knowing that we have a different tactical plan than the Ghana match, with personnel that fits that plan a bit better, and surely Bradley can't have two awful games in a row, can he?

There is one other thing, and this is something that probably surprised many, not just me - all the musculature issues. Beyond Altidore, also Besler and Cameron. And what is Bedoya's status? Remember, he was subbed out for injury late for Zusi. Remember, this game is in the Amazon - so the weather will be a factor. 

In most situations, I would favor the US over anyone from Europe, Asia or North America in terms of fitness. In Brazil, I would give South American sides the benefit of the doubt and Central and South African teams are just so athletic. So according to Hoyle, we would have the advantage on Portugal. But the injuries we had in the Ghana match give me pause. This will be something to watch.

A Tie Is Very Good

As excited as we might get about a win, even if a win doesn't happen, a tie is likely and that is a fantastic result for the US at this point in the tournament. If nothing else, it lays the foundation where both Germany and the US advance with a tie - and Germany advancing as the first seed. 

Considering what appears to be the relative weakness of Group H, or simply the fact that the US would have advanced out of the Group of Death, I don't see where the US would want to try to win that game and risk losing their position of advancement, and Germany would be happy to advance as the No. 1 seed. Frankly, I wouldn't expect Germany to just "let" the US tie them, but I can't see them opening up too much to try to get the win.

We will see how it plays out, but I am more and more encouraged by the history of the US being able to frustrate a talented but frustratable side, especially considering what appears to be a very unified and focused US team.

The questions will be (A) will the be set up tactically the right way, (B) can they  execute that plan, (C) will they be fit and healthy enough, and (D) can they keep their composure as the match temperature rises. Time will tell, but those are the things to watch for.

That and the next installment of the Jack Bauer video.

Sleep well, folks, for tomorrow, we dine in Hell! 

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