STANFORD, Calif. – It's not the talk of the camp just yet, but it's about to be.
"How do we stop Cristiano Ronaldo?" is a question every team has had to ask itself and spend subsequent hours trying to answer over the past decade. As the Portuguese buzzsaw has shed his various accoutrements and become the most ruthless, efficient goalscorer in the world, the solution to that particular riddle has been harder to come by.
Try to force him wide? He'll go around you at pace and either shoot from a tight angle (on the run, mind) or use his incredible relative gravity to pull your central defender out of position before side-footing a pass into the central channel for a teammate to run onto.
OK, that didn't work. Let's turn him into the middle where you have help...
Hmm, I guess maybe the key is to just keep him off the ball in the build-up.
Eeeesh. OK, let's just bunker – get all 11 of us behind the ball and defend the area, then jailbreak when we can.
No easy answers, folks. And the guys at the US camp know it.
"It's obviously a huge challenge, and it's something all of us want," said Seattle Sounders youngster DeAndre Yedlin, who is one of six players in Jurgen Klinsmann's camp who could conceivably see playing time at right back next month. "We all know the type of player he is."
Ronaldo, who has scored 251 goals in 245 games across all competitions with Real Madrid since 2009, is quite obviously the headliner in Group G, a one-of-a-kind talent. But he's not a one-of-a-kind "type" – rather, he is simply the best of a new breed of attacker, a player once shoehorned into a wide role who now roams freely across the entire attacking zone.
Ronaldo, and Germany's Andre Schurrle, as well as Ghana's Wakaso Mubarak are all what would most aptly be termed "inverted wingers," players who don't start on the forward line but bear much of the goalscoring responsibilities that have traditionally fallen to forwards. Ronaldo and Schurrle are right-footed, and prefer to start on the left; Mubarak is the opposite.
All three, as is the tactical fashion of the day, tend to drift away from forward line in possession, then make lightning runs into the final third once it's time to attack. As such, they're not somebody's problem; they're everybody's problem.
"It's different," said Columbus Crew defender Michael Parkhurst, who is a central defender by trade but is more likely to get World Cup minutes at right back. "It's not a 1-on-1 thing like it might have been in the past, when wide players wanted to get wide. You still obviously have to do your job, but there's a lot more help involved, and a lot of communication. You probably want to turn them inside, into help. But you have to make sure the help is there.
"If it's not, you're in some trouble."
The US discovered this to their detriment in early March against Ukraine, when Andriy Yarmolenko was the best player on the pitch and always dangerous cutting in from the wing. Edgar Castillo, the left fullback on the day, often did good work getting Yarmolenko to move into where help should have been, but the US rotations were slow and help was only sporadically there.
"Everybody's got to be on the same page," said Alejandro Bedoya, who's likely to get his minutes at right midfield and, as such, will spend a good deal of time on the same side of the pitch as Ronaldo and Schurrle. "You don't want it to turn into a 1-on-1. Not with him – not with any of them."
According to Bedoya, the US haven't really talked tactics yet, as camp is just three days old. Not formally, anyway.
"We've all seen him play," he offered. "There are no secrets out there in football."
And when it comes to Ronaldo, no answers either. Let the strategizing begin.