MANAUS, Brazil – FIFA, in its eternal wisdom, scheduled the U.S. national team’s pre-match press conference during the second half of Saturday’s Germany-Ghana game.
That Group G contest, which ended 2-2, turned out to be one of the World Cup’s best and had significant implications for the U.S.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was so captivated by it at one point he stopped answering questions about the upcoming showdown with Portugal and raced from the dais to catch the final few minutes on a TV in an adjacent room. By the time he returned, he had a clearer picture of the stakes.
The draw in Fortaleza put the U.S. in position to clinch a spot in the World Cup’s round of 16 with a Sunday win over Portugal. That simple scenario seemed unlikely just a couple of weeks ago, when many predicted Klinsmann’s team would struggle in the tournament’s most balanced quartet, the widely touted Group of Death. Now, thanks to a stalwart defensive performance against Ghana, John Brooks’ timely header and good fortune elsewhere, the Americans are 90 minutes from the second round.
“It just confirms what we all knew from the beginning, that this is a very difficult group, and a draw between [Germany and Ghana] just shows that, but it also puts a positive result that we made against Ghana in the right perspective. It’s a very, very good team that we played against in Natal,” Klinsmann said after returning to the press conference. “For us it’s a huge opportunity tomorrow in Manaus, and we’ll definitely go for it.”
The U.S. would remain in good shape with a tie against Portugal. The Americans then would advance with either a victory or draw against Germany in the group-stage finale on June 26. A defeat to the Germans still could send the U.S. through depending on the score and the outcome of Portugal-Ghana. Should the U.S. lose to Portugal here at the Arena da Amazônia, a win over Germany would be sufficient and a tie would leave its fate up in the air.
Obviously, the Americans’ focus will be on eliminating all doubt in Manaus.
“It’s just another motivating factor,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We’re going to go into the game and fight tooth and nail and that’s a good result for us, to know that if we can take care of business the rest of it is history. It’s exciting.”
Klinsmann called the opportunity to meet Portugal at the World Cup “the next big, huge step for us.”
The coach continued, “Since the draw came out there’s been a lot of admiration for Cristiano [Ronaldo] and the players who play overseas and play for big clubs and play [UEFA] Champions League and all that stuff. But this is now the moment where you can prove yourself. This is the moment where you can step up and play those guys and put them in their place. We want to put Cristiano and his team in their place. We want to get out there with all the energy that we have, all the discipline that we’re going to bring, all the aggressiveness we’re going to bring to the play and make it our game.”
Portugal will be desperate. Coach Paulo Bento said here on Saturday he knows his team faces a “difficult situation.” Defeat would send the Portuguese out of the tournament and a draw would leave them needing to make up a significant disadvantage in goal differential on the final day of the first round.
“Either we win or we pack our suitcase,” said Bento, who played as a substitute when the U.S. upset Portugal at the 2002 World Cup.
Ronaldo is expected to play despite a nagging knee injury, but Bento will be missing several other starters. Central defender Pepe is suspended and left back Fábio Coentrão is out with an injured groin. Forward Hugo Almeida and goalkeeper Rui Patrício also are hurt and defender Bruno Alves will be a game-time decision.
Klinsmann will have no sympathy for his counterpart as he aims to make up for the absence of target forward Jozy Altidore, who’s out with a strained hamstring. Captain Clint Dempsey, who suffered a broken nose against Ghana, trained without a protective mask Saturday.
“We think we have a good replacement – a very good replacement – for Jozy Altidore. Not just with one player but a couple,” Howard said. “Jozy’s a big loss for us but we can fill that gap and we fill confident, whether it’s Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski or Clint up there on his own, we feel confident in our ability.”
World Cups aren’t supposed to be easy, and Klinsmann always expected adversity in Brazil. Now, despite facing plenty against Ghana and having to juggle his lineup and tactics on Monday, he’s on the verge of securing unexpectedly early passage to the knockout stage.
“We could’ve done a couple of things better against Ghana, but still, we got the three points with a great spirit and a great fight and now is the next bigger stage,” Klinsmann said. “It’s Portugal – a special moment, so recognize that special moment and we really can’t wait to get this game started.”
Said Howard: “It’s a turning point if we can win this game.”