SAO PAULO – If there are any lingering questions about Jermaine Jones’ affinity for America -- assuming the house in Southern California, the large stars and stripes knee tattoo and Monday’s robust performance against Ghana aren’t enough – then consider the analogy he drew when asked about the U.S. national team’s upcoming showdown with Portugal and its charismatic, high-scoring superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I always say that a team is important, not maybe two or three key players. So if you stick together like a team, and fight like a team … you will win the game,” Jones said this week from the U.S. base in Sao Paulo. “The NBA game, or NBA finals, showed how it works. The Spurs were the better team and this is why they won the championship.”
LeBron James was the leading scorer by some distance in the NBA’s championship series, but his Heat were dispatched with relative ease by San Antonio. From the American hardwood, Jones finds inspiration for his own team’s sojourn in the Amazon. Ronaldo, the reigning FIFA player of the year and leading scorer for European champion Real Madrid, may be the best player on the planet. But through collective effort, Jones and the U.S. believe they can stop him and win.
“First we will try to make our own game, look what we can do and not what can Portugal do, or Cristiano do. It’s up to us what we want. When we stick together as a team, and fight like we did against Ghana, then I think we have a chance to win this game,” Jones said. “We don’t make a big deal about Cristiano. I think we are trying to make it our own game.”
Portugal has plenty of talented players, the result against Germany notwithstanding. It’s facing a couple of key absences as well. Defender Pepe is suspended thanks to his red-card meltdown in Salvador and left back Fábio Coentrão – who often supports Ronaldo on the left – will miss the rest of the tournament with an injured groin. Others such as forward Hugo Almeida, goalkeeper Rui Patricio and defender Bruno Alves are battling injuries as well.
But Ronaldo remains the focus. He’s the sport’s most visible, and perhaps polarizing, player. The 29-year-old possesses an unstoppable mix of speed and skill and has scored an astonishing 252 goals over his past five seasons at Real Madrid, averaging more than a goal per game. In November, he single-handedly destroyed Sweden to qualify Portugal for the World Cup, tallying each of his team’s four goals in a two-game playoff.
He’s also a showman. Flamboyant and vain, Ronaldo embodies soccer’s passion and pageantry. He dates a supermodel, shows off his abs after scoring and is always the center of attention. When he plays, he’s the story. If he doesn’t, he’s the story.
This week, as photos of Ronaldo wearing an ice pack on his left knee went viral, speculation mounted that the lingering injury that bothered him toward the end of the club season might force him out of Sunday’s match against the U.S. He played 90 minutes in the humiliating 4-0 loss to Germany but failed to make his usual impact. Whether that was because he was hurting, because Germany was that good or because his own team collapsed behind him isn’t immediately apparent. But everyone in the U.S. camp is expecting Ronaldo to take the Arena da Amazônia field and nobody believes he’ll be off his game twice in succession. Especially with Portugal facing elimination.
“When you get that 4-0 result from Germany, you’re going to come into Manaus pretty angry. And I don’t know how Cristiano Ronaldo behaves when he’s angry,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Added Michael Bradley: “He’s a complete player. When you look at the game today, there's such a premium on the physical aspect of the game: speed, strength, endurance. And he is a guy who checks all those boxes. And then when you talk about his technical ability, the way he shoots with his right to and left foot, how good in the air he is, he's somebody who can make the difference at any point.”
Ronaldo’s mobility presents an additional challenge. He typically lines up on the left but has free rein to find the ball, and he’s as adept at sparking the Portuguese counterattack as he is locating a sliver of space in the penalty area. If there was a formula for defending him, someone would have discovered it. Instead, American hopes rest on limiting Ronaldo without deploying too many resources to the cause. Portugal has other weapons, including midfield conductor João Moutinho, who must be respected.
“It’s going to be something we’re going to have to be aware of him at all times and especially, I think when he’s most dangerous is when you have the ball and you’re attacking,” U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “We’ve seen games where the others team’s attacking and looks dangerous, next thing you know they lose the ball, find Cristiano and it’s in the back of their net. It’s going to be something where we’ll always be aware of him. Everybody’s going to have to have an eye on the offense, on defense and it’s going to take eleven guys playing offense and defense to win this game.”
Beckerman’s point about playing offense could prove crucial. While possession might result in the turnover Ronaldo is waiting for, it’s also the best way to keep the ball off his feet. The U.S. struggled with that against Ghana. The Black Stars won the possession battle handily but lost the game because of their inefficiency in the attacking third. Ronaldo won’t waste those chances. U.S. prospects may depend on keeping the ball, dictating the pace and putting Portugal on its heels.
“Absolutely. I think our best defense is offense and we have to be extremely clean with the ball,” Beckerman said.
“We just have to do it. We just have to do it,” he said. “We’re going to have to be clean with the ball, we’re going to have to finish our chances and I think if you can go a goal up on them, it helps a big part of that because I think they do like to counterattack.”
It’s not just the counter, however. Whether it’s creating his own shot off the dribble, finishing a cross or his prowess on free kicks, Ronaldo will find ways to wreak havoc. This isn’t a must-win game for the Americans. They’re still in decent shape with a draw. But Portugal and Ronaldo represent the sort of obstacles the U.S. must overcome to reach the “next level” to which Klinsmann aspires.
“Look, we understand what a special player he is. We understand how good of a team that they have. But it’s nothing that phases us,” Bradley said. “We're excited by the challenge. We’re excited by the moment. We feel like we've put ourselves in a good position, but still, everybody is mindful of the fact that [Ghana was] just one game and now to follow up a good start to the tournament with another result, that's the only thing we're worried about at the moment.”
GALLERY: Best shots from USA 2, Ghana 1