Cristiano Ronaldo, memories of 2010, and Spain-Portugal: Wedneday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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source: Reuters

At the beginning of the month, Portugal looked set to be an unfortunate casualty of the Group of Death, with Germany and the Netherlands picked to get through. Two and a half weeks, a Dutch collapse, and some exorcizing of Danish demons later, the Seleccao are riding a three-match winning streak into Wednesday’s semifinal with Spain. And if debunking conventional wisdom wasn’t enough for the Portuguese, they have one big reason to like their chances against the defending world and european champions: a 4-0, November win in Lisbon.

It was, however, just a friendly, and given some of the other stumbles Spain have had in the last year, Portugal would be wise not to take too much from it. Since the World Cup, Spain has also lost to Argentina, Italy, and England – all friendlies. hrough Euro qualifying and the finals, they’ve stayed undefeated, implying they’ve developed two gears: play, and play to win.

Which gear they’ve been in during this tournament’s been unclear. Three wins in four matches is a record bested by only Germany, yet in most of their games, the holders have looked more controlling than dominant. La Roja dazzled in their group stage win over Ireland, but in their other three matches, Spain played to their emerging stereotype: Unwilling to take the risks necessary to score goals. Just like all stereotypes, the reputation’s part hyperbole, part truth.

Portugal represents a big step up. Yes, Spain has faced and survived Italy, but with an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo, Iberia’s other power may be primed for the biggest win in their history.

Match kicks off at 2:45 p.m. Eastern. Here’s your playlist.

1. We’ve been here before

The most important defender for Real Madrid, Portugal center half Pepe is not only used to playing Barcelona, he’s used to succeeding. At least, he’s used to experiencing as much success as anybody has against Barça, experience that should serve him and his teammates well on Wednesday. As Spain keeps Portugal’s defense under constant pressure, Pepe can help maintain the Seleccao’s organization, his teammates having the confidence of knowing he’s been there before.

The same effect can be seen in midfield, though the leader there is more unlikely. Raul Meireles served as one of the keys to Roberto Di Matteo’s conservative set up as Chelsea claimed Champions League. He may not be Portugal’s best midfielder, but he’s the one that’s actually been crucial to a team that’s beat a Spain-like attack.

Portugal has the talent and approach to thwart Spain, but they don’t have experiences getting it done. With Pepe and Meireles, they have two players who’ve successfully implemented the plan, if not for Portugal.

2. Cristiano

Portugal can beat Spain without Cristiano Ronaldo having a big day, though it would be a lot easier if he did. Having scored all the Portuguese goals in their last two wins, Ronaldo has shown he’s capable of carrying his team to the semifinals. He’s also left Paulo Bento in search of a Plan B.

Nani seems like the most likely understudy, especially if Portugal can get him behind Jordi Alba. Even though Nani’s been most effective this tournament when providing for Ronaldo, he’s still capable of getting goals, especially when Joao Moutinho’s providing for him.

Beyond that, set pieces are a possibility, but with Portugal unlikely to hold much of the ball, corners and restarts could be few and far between.

Portugal has built their team around Cristiano Ronaldo, so for better or worse, they’ll need him to have a big day if they’re going to get past Spain. Based on how Ronaldo’s played over the couple of weeks, there are worse places to be.

3. Staying back

Given Portugal’s strength on the wings, Vicente del Bosque has a choice to make regarding his fullbacks. As the tournament’s progressed, both Jordi Alba and Arvalo Arbeloa have been pushing forward with little regard with what goes on behind them. Against Ronaldo and Nani, it’s not a strategy del Bosque’s likely to be comfortable with, given his four years of risk aversion.

Del Bosque might be thankful for some middle ground. Keeping Arbeloa back isn’t that big a deal. He hasn’t contributed much in attack anyway. Alba, however, has improved with each game and provided an assist from the left against France. Keeping him back could have a much bigger effect.

It might not be an issue. Against the Netherlands and Germany, Nani often played very deep on the right – much deeper than Ronaldo’s corresponding position on the left. If Portugal reveres Spain as much as they revered the Germans and Dutch, Nani won’t be asked to pin Alba back. Instead, he’ll likely the one asked to run with the soon-to-be Barcelona left back.

4. Patience

And if Spain’s not going to release their fullbacks, Portugal’s going to be very difficult to break down. But if we’ve learned anything about Spain, it’s that they will break you down. Just give them time. All the 1-0s in South Africa attest to that, with the world champions needing extra time to convert their dominance over the Dutch into the 2010 World Cup.

It may take as long to get past Portugal, but Spain needs to stay patient. That doesn’t mean they should refrain from diversifying their attack by using Jesus Navas, Santi Cazorla, Fernando Llorente – they definitely should do all those things. Along the way, they should remember that it took them 63 minutes to get their goal against Portugal in South Africa. They should remember that’s not uncommon.

For all the danger Portugal presents, they’re not better than the German team Spain dominated in the 2010 semifinals. Spain needed 73 minutes to break through them. Portugal’s not better than the Dutch team Spain dominated in the final. It look La Roja 116 minutes to get that goal.

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Extremely early, Gold Cup glee-driven thoughts on a USMNT World Cup roster

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The United States men’s national team won its sixth Gold Cup title on Wednesday, topping Jamaica 2-1 on a late winner from Jordan Morris.

It’s the sort of goal that moves a 22-year-old forward’s name from pencil to pen on a World Cup roster, one the Yanks will hopefully be planning following qualifying under Bruce Arena.

Morris is one of several players who took hold of their chances to march into Russia via fine performances as part of the USMNT’s “B Team” in the Gold Cup, along with Darlington Nagbe, Matt Besler, and maybe Paul Arriola (This assumes you hadn’t already counted Omar Gonzalez).

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

It seems to us there are six spots in play right now. The forward batch of four is set and Ethan Horvath will probably join Tim Howard and Brad Guzan in the goalkeeper corps.

Five defenders look set and the same amount of midfielders (Besler, Brooks, Cameron, Gonzalez, Yedlin, Bedoya, Bradley, Johnson, Nagbe, Pulisic), leaving three defender and three midfielder spots. It looks set to come down to Kenny Saief or Kelyn Rowe in the midfield, and Tim Ream or Graham Zusi at the back.

So what’s the United States’ 23-man roster look like for Russia right now? Here’s our best guess (and we’re thinking as Arena, not us):

Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath

Defenders (8): Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Jorge Villafana, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi.

Midfielders (8): Kellyn Acosta, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Kelyn Rowe.

Forwards (4):  Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood.

Bonus seven-man waiting list: Joe Corona, Dom Dwyer, Dax McCarty, Tim Ream, Kenny Saief, Danny Williams, Gyasi Zardes.

Morris’ 88th minute missile gives USMNT Gold Cup

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Jordan Morris missed a chance to put the U.S. ahead with three minutes to play, then belted the Americans to a title with moments to spare in regulation, giving the USMNT its sixth Gold Cup title with a 2-1 win over Jamaica at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Wednesday.

Altidore also scored his 39th career goal and is now 16 goals behind joint-USMNT all-time leaders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Je-Vaughn Watson equalized for Jamaica within five second half minutes.

[ MORE: Three things | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s the winner:

The early stages were more about fouls than chances, as Jamaica took several chances to plow into the favored U.S.

Je-Vaughn Watson could’ve seen red for a cleating of Jordan Morris, and Jorge Villafana was felled by a vicious bit of work from Romario Williams.

The first threat on goal came from Jozy Altidore and friends, as the Toronto FC man tore into a 25-yard shot that Andre Blake saved before being injured denying Kellyn Acosta’s rebound chance.

Blake was taken from the game with an ugly-looking hand injury, and Dwayne Miller took his place between the sticks.

Though the U.S. controlled the game, there were dicey moments, to be sure, as Graham Zusi was cooked by Darren Mattocks and the U.S. conceded a corner kick it was able to send clear of danger.

Continued U.S. pressure led to a dangerous free kick, dead center, 30 yards from goal. Enter Altidore.

The lead didn’t last long, as Watson cooked Jordan Morris at the back post to lash a free kick past Tim Howard. It was poor marking from the youngster, and the final was tied at 1.

Miller made a stop on an Arriola in the 63rd minute, as the U.S. looked to rally after inserting Clint Dempsey for Kellyn Acosta.

Omar Gonzalez headed a Michael Bradley corner off the netting outside of the near post in the 71st minute, as the Yanks and Reggae Boyz edged toward extra time.

Miller then flipped a Morris rip over the bar for a U.S. corner that turned into a Jamaican counter when Gonzalez was sucked into the Reggae Boyz’ 18.

Dempsey then headed a cross that Miller pushed off the post in the 75th minute in a moment that would’ve been doubly historic.

The Seattle man then mishit a free kick that nearly gave Jordan Morris the match-winner, but the fellow Sounders attacker somehow opted against passing it on goal with his left-foot and flubbed the chance.

Given a chance with his right foot, though, it was all good. A Zardes cross was partially cleared to the penalty spot, and Morris made no doubt with a blast past Miller. 2-1, 90.

USMNT player ratings from the Gold Cup Final win

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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

How did the individual champs fare? Read on…

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 6 — He’s not going to do much better on the goal, short of Landon Donovan’s suggestion to keep a man on the back post. The Yanks’ clear No. 1.

Jorge Villafana — 5 — A rough night, but all-in-all may be Arena’s best option provided Fabian Johnson doesn’t move back to LB for ‘Gladbach season.

Omar Gonzalez — 7 — See below.

Matt Besler — 7 — Didn’t have to do too much, but etched his name as the third or fourth CB for Russia 2018.

Graham Zusi — 6 — Maybe his best game of his oft-maligned tournament, even if the game is much different with Darren Mattocks doing something better after cooking Zusi early on the flank. He’s a midfielder for me, maybe a RWB in a 3-5-2.

Michael Bradley — 7 — He was given the Golden Ball in one of those rare moments that prove voters watch players who aren’t goal scorers, and he deserved it. Bradley seems to have come out of his NT dark period, and was mostly very good in the tournament.

Kellyn Acosta (Off 55′) — 5 — Passing was off, and seemed a little too eager to jump passes and betray his position.

Paul Arriola (Off 76′) — 6 — Ran his shorts off, but still missing the right bit of service needed from a man out wide. Improved World Cup stock, but had a chance to do even more.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 90+1′) — 8 — Every time I blow off a player due to early struggles to adapt to the NT set-up, remind me how wonderful Nagbe looked in this tournament.

Jordan Morris — 7 — There’s something to be said for any player coming back from a missed opportunity and a lost mark on the Jamaica equalizer. His match winner coming moments after he bungled a chance to pass home with his left foot says a lot for the future of Standord’s industrious striker.

Jozy Altidore — 8 — He’s a CONCACAF killer, and somehow when he drops deep into the midfield we’re okay with it. Yes, Andre Blake stops his free kick. But Andre Blake wasn’t there, was he?

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Subs

Clint Dempsey (On 55′) — 7 — Clint Dempsey = super sub. It makes us super happy to say/read, and we’re hoping he’s a rich man’s Carlos Ruiz.

Gyasi Zardes (On 76′) — 5 — I championed his inclusion into the NT for a while, but how he has a place other than a status as a longtime Arena player is baffling. His cross which led to the winner didn’t look to be anything more than a Hail Mary.

Dax McCarty (On 90+1′) — N/A

Three things from the USMNT’s sixth Gold Cup

AP Photo/Ben Margot
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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Match recap | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s what we learned from a fun win over the Reggae Boyz.

A moment for U.S. Soccer history

It doesn’t matter whether the Americans were heavy favorites or underdogs (they were heavy favorites), a title-winning match is going to make memories for an entire program.

That it was Stanford product Jordan Morris who scored the match winner in the 88th minute only makes it better.

Morris is a symbol of the many paths Americans can take to the national team, and his industrious efforts and “100 mph at all-times” motor received a deserved exclamation point.

“It’s unbelievable. Every time I step on this field it’s an honor to represent this country. This game was amazing. Jamaica made it really tough and I was nervous cause it was my guy who scored on the goal so I was trying to make up for it any way I could.”

It wasn’t Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore who etched their names in U.S. Soccer history, and that’s a good note for this side as it builds toward, hopefully, the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That picture above says a lot.

Bruce gets it right (mostly)

While being careful not to give the legendary U.S. boss too much credit for choosing 10 of his best 11 and trotting out the same lineup from a solid win over Costa Rica, Arena had five games to find a team that would win a final on home soil and he successfully pulled that off.

He was right to know he could navigate the group stage with an experimental bunch, even if those games showed that the American depth isn’t near what many of us hoped it might be at this point in the program’s development.

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

What it means for a World Cup or even the rest of CONCACAF qualifying is another thing, but the quality of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Howard is too much for all of CONCACAF but Mexico (and Costa Rica on its best day).

Lauding Arena for plugging Dempsey into the match as his first sub is like lauding a pizzeria owner for ordering mozzarella for his pies, so let’s move to sub No. 2. It was a risk to plug ice-cold Gyasi Zardes into the match, and the LA Galaxy man did not look good for most of the match. But his cross on the winner got the job done, and you can’t take that away from the team.

The future feels bright

Michael Bradley was given the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament, and the fact that the Yanks clearly arrived in the tournament with their captain’s return to the fold following the group stage is no coincidence.

Yet it is a pleasant and mild surprise. Bradley had not starred for the U.S. for some time, though he is clearly their best option in the middle of the park. For him to arrive and put in a calm, collected, and dominant batch of shifts is a good sign heading into some tough World Cup qualifiers.

Tim Howard proved again that there was never any need to consider anyone else as a No. 1 — even though Brad Guzan had some great moments in the group stage — while Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey both shined in spots.

Considering that Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, and Bobby Wood were (probably) just hanging out in Europe during the tournament shows that the Americans can feel good about life. That’s a marked change from life under Jurgen Klinsmann, and U.S. Soccer has been proven right time and again by that move. The jury’s still out on Arena, but that same jury has good vibes right now.