SAO PAULO – Can the Group of Death be navigated in just 180 minutes? For the United States, what seemed a pie-in-the-sky scenario when the draw came out in December is suddenly a very real possibility.
Though endorphins were flowing after the Americans rallied for an iconic 2-1 win in Natal against Ghana on Monday, putting eight years of World Cup frustration in the rearview, the focus turned immediately to reeling Portugal once the team plane touched down at Guarulhos International Airport here in the early morning hours on Tuesday.
Before the US had even taken the field at Arena das Dunas, Germany had rendered Cristiano Ronaldo a frustrated spectator in a 4-0 defeat that saw center back Pepe red-carded, meaning he will be absent on Sunday in Manaus (6 pm ET; ESPN), and left back Fábio Coentrão ruled out for the rest of the tournament with a thigh injury.
And while many of his players slept, their game-day routines sacred, Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff watched as the group dynamics shifted in Salvador.
“It’s a difficult situation for them now after that 4-0 defeat. They are now with their backs against the wall,” Klinsmann told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “It makes it even more difficult to get a result, but that’s what you want. That’s what a World Cup is about. We also have the chance with a win to hopefully qualify already. It can’t get any better.”
In order to qualify with a game remaining, the US would need to do just that, certainly no easy task even with Portugal’s high-profile absences, and Germany would have to handle business against Ghana. With both teams on six points and Ghana and Portugal with zero from two games, passage to the knockout round would be booked.
Of course, there’s no sense counting points before they're earned. Jozy Altidore’s status is in serious doubt, and Ronaldo is likely to put his side on his shoulders, as he did during a two-legged World Cup qualifying playoff against Sweden, with Portugal’s tournament on the line.
No need to remind Klinsmann of that. He said the scouting reports are complete, every qualifying game and player analyzed completely, and there’s no doubt things only get tougher going forward.
“Portugal is definitely a different caliber than Ghana,” he said. “It’s one of the favorites for the tournament and has very exceptional players. We are very well aware of that. We are not comparing them with Ghana. Whatever Ghana is, it’s way back now, out of our minds.”
With that in mind and the prospect of extreme weather and shoddy field conditions in Manaus, where all the materials for the stadium and the playing surface were shipped by boat up the Amazon River, could a draw be enough should Germany do what’s expected of them in Fortaleza?
“Based on past World Cups, sometimes four points isn’t even enough,” Alejandro Bedoya said. “You’re aware of that as well. I don’t think that we’ve gone that far to think that, ‘OK, if we get a draw, then we’re maybe safe and through.’ We’re trying to go out against Portugal and win that game. Then we don’t have to think about anything.”
That’s not entirely true. They’ll have seeding to worry about should Portugal fall for a second time, but first the US know they must improve on what was largely a lackluster performance against Ghana to have any shot of setting up the ideal scenario.
The Black Stars had 21 shots to eight for the eventual winners, and held 60 percent of the possession, whipping in 30 crosses from the run of play as the US spent much of 90 minutes on their heels. Even more concerning, the Americans barely got the ball into the final third, and were largely ineffective when they did venture into attacking positions.
“I think we need to play a little bit of a field possession game, or steal some of the field at times,” said Graham Zusi, who assisted on John Brooks' game-winner. “If we try so much to play out of our back, I think at times we can put the ball on their end and go up and pressure them as well. I think that we can improve on, but also just protecting the ball more. I think we give it away a bit too easily.”
Easy to say, harder to do, but the ever-optimistic Klinsmann has no doubt his boys have it in them, going so far as to give them a day off on Wednesday to recharge ahead of another massive 90 minutes.
It will take some improvement, yes, but with the all-important first step out of the way despite a subpar showing in most regards, the only way to go is up.
“We believe we can go to Manaus and beat [Portugal],” he said.