SAO PAULO – The U.S. national team landed in Sao Paulo early Tuesday morning with three precious points in the Group G standings but a few bumps and bruises as well. Hours after overcoming Ghana, 2-1, in Natal thanks to a resolute defensive effort and John Brooks’ dramatic 86th-minute header, the 1-0-0 Americans faced two new challenges: get healthy and look ahead instead of back.
There was relatively good news on the injury front. Clint Dempsey’s broken nose, suffered when Ghana’s John Boye kicked the U.S. captain in the face, won’t prevent him from playing Sunday against Portugal. Dempsey may wear a protective mask, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said here following practice at Sao Paulo FC’s training facility.
“I don’t know how much a mask can protect him,” Klinsmann said. “Whatever he feels good with … It was tricky during the game. He barely could breathe. He struggled with that, but once it’s broken it’s broken. It will take time to heal completely, but unfortunately, it’s part of our game. He’s going to be all right.”
Defender Matt Besler apparently will be OK as well. He felt pain in his hamstring late in the first half and received treatment during intermission before deciding it was best to remain cautious and leave the match. He was scheduled for an MRI on Tuesday but Klinsmann said the Sporting Kansas City star is expected to be ready in Manaus.
“Matt is no problem,” Klinsmann said.
Besler’s SKC teammate, U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi, said Tuesday that the defender’s injury “isn’t all too bad” and that, “We fully expect him to be back with the guys tomorrow.”
Only Jozy Altidore remains a question mark. The forward pulled up in the 21st minute with a left hamstring injury that appeared severe. He was stretchered from the Arena das Dunas field and underwent an MRI on Tuesday in Sao Paulo. The results were not immediately available.
“With Jozy, we have to see how he reacts in the next couple of days,” Klinsmann said. “We are full of hope he comes back in this tournament.”
Absent Altidore, Klinmann could turn to either Aron Johannsson, who filled in against Ghana, or San Jose Earthquakes marksman Chris Wondolowski. The manager also could leave Clint Dempsey alone up front and deploy a five-man midfield featuring Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya on the flanks (Bedoya said he was fine after suffering a hip pointer and cramps on Monday). Neither Johannsson nor Wondolowski can match Altidore’s physicality, and neither is a traditional target forward. The introduction of either would necessitate tactical adjustments.
“I don’t want to go too deep into details,” Klinsmann said when asked how he’d cope with Altidore’s likely absence. “Obviously we want Portugal to guess a little bit as well, but when one of your key players is not available it does change certain things. Absolutely it does. Jozy is a very strong, key player in our group so we’ll think about the right way to handle the situation. We can still field 11. We’re not a man down … We’ll make it very difficult for Portugal in Manaus and we’ll find solutions.”
The search for those solutions has already started. Klinsmann was adamant on Tuesday that his team already is totally focused on the Portuguese, who will look to rebound from a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany. While the temptation to revel in Monday’s historic win over Ghana might exist, it must be avoided.
“It’s always difficult for the coaches to move on from an emotional ending of a game into the next game and we are always telling the players, ‘Stay on the ground. Stay focused. The next game is even more difficult than the one we just played,’” Klinsmann said. “That’s why we wanted badly to come back right away after the game to Sao Paulo and make it clear now that the only thing we talk about is Portugal.”
He continued, “We’ve done all our scouting work. We had people at the [Portugal-Germany] game. We’ve summarized it already. We only talk now about how we can beat this Portuguese team with all these amazing players they have … We want to get to the next round so if it [requires] that we beat Portugal, this is what we have to do.”
Klinsmann, of course, has plenty of World Cup experience. He played in three, winning one, then coached Germany at the 2006 tournament. It may be easier for him to compartmentalize and move on. It will be up to players like Bedoya who made their debut to figure out what works for them.
“I use it as motivation, really. That feeling last night was amazing,” the midfielder said. “You got to soak it all in, right? Last night we were enjoying ourselves and everything. Now we’ve got to recuperate. Our bodies are banged up a bit and now we put all of our focus on Portugal and I think we will be able to do that. This is the World Cup. It is about having a little bit of fun as well, you know?”
They’ll get that chance on Wednesday, when the U.S. will take the day off. Players may have the opportunity to spend time with their families, who are staying at separate hotels. The positive mood surrounding the U.S. camp on Tuesday was marred only by Altidore’s injury. Klinsmann tried to approach it with a smile, as usual.
“All you do as a coach is give him a positive hug and tell him, ‘Listen, you’ll be back. Stay positive. You’ll be back,’” Klinsmann said. “We keep him positive and we have that big hope that he’s coming back in this tournament.”