Pre-game focus: Three areas to watch when U.S. faces Portugal

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Ghana’s draw against Germany has given the United States a chance to move first in Group G, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and a desperate Portugal next in line, qualifying for the next round is far from certain. The U.S. needs two points over its next two games to clinch a spot in the final 16, though in the eyes of some, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team will be underdogs against both the Seleccao and the attack-heavy Germans.

But to the extent there is a talent gap between the U.S. and Portugal, a slew of absences that will help. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio, left back Fabio Coentrão, and forward Hugo Almeida are all injured, while central defender Pepe will be suspended after drawing a red card in game one. As questions about Ronaldo’s left knee persist, it’s unclear how strong FIFA’s fourth-ranked team will be at kickoff.

That leaves the U.S. with a chance to make history. The team’s never won two group stage games, let alone their first two, but if the team can summon the spirit of 2002 to help send another Portuguese team home, they’ll make history 180 minutes into their 2014 World Cup.

[ POSNANSKI: Confidence and the unconventional Klinsmann ]

Here are three areas of focus ahead of tomorrow’s 6:00 p.m. Eastern kickoff:

source: Getty Images1. Where moving Fabian Johnson could pay off – Johnson’s switch from the left side to right back late in club season is paying off for the U.S., though given Klinsmann’s liberal view of positions, the Germany-born wide man could have ended up at the position, regardless. Drawn into a group where the likes of Ronaldo and German Marco Reus posed game-deciding threats, Klinsmann may have prioritized his previously ailing right back position, and while Reus’s injury means Johnson will face a slightly less dynamic foe on Thursday, the move should still pay off against Ronaldo.

Scour the U.S.’s player pool, and there’s no better player to lineup opposite the Real Madrid star than the 26-year-old Johnson. To the extent that anybody can challenge a player like Ronaldo, the Germany-born Johnson has the profile to do so, combining speed, strength, size, athleticism and experience. While that hasn’t produced perfect performances in his last four starts, it does provide the U.S. a surprisingly viable option against the Portuguese star. Not many squads have a player like Johnson.

Team defense will be more important. Denying Ronaldo the ball in dangerous spots and preventing him from having chances cutting in on his right foot will be key. And when Portugal build down their right, Ronaldo’s often going to be isolated one-on-one at the far post against Johnson. Denying good service will be crucial.

Still, the U.S. will be lucky to have a player like Fabian Johnson at right back, and while that doesn’t mean Ronaldo will be kept off the scoresheet, it does increase the chance that one of the team’s best athletes will lineup against Portugal’s biggest star. Five weeks after installing him at the position, Klinsmann may see his move pay off.

[ MORE: Germany’s formation sheds light on Klinsmann’s roots ]
[ RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly ]

source: Getty Images2. Prioritizing what to prevent in the middle – It’s not that Portugal’s midfield’s particularly dangerous. In fact, if you go player-for-player, there are some encouraging similarities, from the U.S.’s point of view. Michael Bradley is the U.S.’s João Moutinho, Jermaine Jones (right) provides the same versatile, volatile presence that Raul Meireles brings to his side, while Kyle Beckerman and Miguel Veloso each provide protection for their defenses.

The obvious difference: The U.S. has one, sometimes two extra men in the middle, and while that means they’re sacrificing something up top, it also means Alejandro Bedoya (should his hip pointer allow him to start over Graham Zusi) and Clint Dempsey will help clog things up for Portugal. To the extent this game becomes a battle in the middle, the U.S. should control it.

Portugal, however, will likely play around that battle. With Ronaldo on one flank, Manchester United’s Nani on the other, the Seleccao won’t need to control the middle of the park to get the ball to its biggest threats. If the U.S. plays the narrow midfield we saw against Ghana, the space that allowed the Black Stars to attempt 35 crosses could translate into chances for Ronaldo and Nani to decide Sunday’s match.

That not necessarily the worst thing. Often you have to decide before the match how you’re willing to let your opponent beat you. Perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann will see Portugal’s wide play as the lesser of evils, knowing players like Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya will be able to provide help when Portugal’s danger men cut to the middle of the park.

If, however, the U.S. wants to provide more resistance on the flanks, its approach will have to change.

[ MORE: Conditions in Manaus won’t be new for the U.S. ]

source: Getty Images3. How will ‘not-Jozy’ do? – Jozy Altidore is the most scrutinized player in the U.S. squad, but if Klinsmann can’t figure out how to replace him, he may prove one of the team’s most indispensable, too. Ruled out with a left hamstring injury, the Sunderland striker will watch as Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski (right) or Dempsey try to replace him.

Unfortunately, none of those understudies will provide the same outlet at the top of the team’s formation. Even though he plays in the middle of an attacking three in the Netherlands, Johannsson’s lack of physicality leaves him ill-equipped to consistently win battles against defenders at this level. Physically, Wondolowski is a better option, but rarely utilized in that matter at club (or, to this point, international) level, it’s unclear how he’ll perform. Put Dempsey up top and you make your best attacker your focal point, but the team’s captain could also end up disappearing when an attacking midfield lacking his skills can’t connect with its forward.

Perhaps wondering how the U.S. can replace Altidore is too presumptuous. Maybe Klinsmann will have to embrace his squad’s new limitations. Instead of deploying a system that relies on a ball-winning striker, the U.S. may need offer support to whomever they start up top.

Sounders nearing potential game-changing transfer for Gonzalez

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And another one.

Major League Soccer’s trend of adding younger players still entering their prime is set to continue with a significant Seattle Sounders acquisition from Dynamo Kyiv.

Derlis Gonzalez is the name, and you may recall it from Copa America Centenario scouting reports. The Paraguayan 23-year-old has four goals for his country, including markers against Brazil and Argentina.

[ MORE: Gold Cup Final preview ]

Gonzalez joined Benfica in 2012, taking a pair of loan seasons before moving to Basel in Switzerland. He moved to Ukrainian champs Dynamo in 2015, and operates as a left wing with the ability to play central or right if necessary.

Sounder At Heart says Gonzalez will play in Dynamo’s UEFA Champions League match against Young Boys on Wednesday before jetting to Seattle. In 21 UCL appearances, Gonzalez has five goals and three assists. He’s scored against Real Madrid, Besiktas, and Porto on two occasions.

So, yeah, this would be a significant addition for not just the Sounders but MLS. Bravo. The transfer fee is will also be an interesting figure.

Roma edges Tottenham in wild ICC affair

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Tottenham opened its 2017 International Champions Cup account in style on Sunday, however, the reigning Premier League runners’ up had no such luck at Red Bull Arena.

[ MORE: Chelsea falls 3-2 to Bayern in Singapore ]

Italian giants AS Roma knocked off Spurs, 3-2, on Tuesday night in New Jersey after Marco Tumminello’s 92nd minute finish dismissed a late push by Tottenham.

The sell-out crowd of 26,192 witnessed a largely dominating performance from Roma, who bounced back well from their opening ICC defeat against PSG — which came last Wednesday on penalty kicks.

Spurs fell behind after just 13 minutes when American defender Cameron Carter-Vickers was caught with his hand away from body, thus drawing a penalty kick for Roma.

Perotti stepped up to the spot on the ensuing kick, before burying the attempt for the Italian side’s opener.

Meanwhile, second-half substitute Under pounced on a rebound in the 70th minute to double the Roma advantage.

Spurs looked more dangerous in the second stanza, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli creating more attacking chances for the PL club, but Roma’s back line stood tall on several occasions.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side finally found a breakthrough with under four minutes remaining after Harry Winks blasted home a close-range shot following a scrum inside the Roma penalty area.

Vincent Janssen did the unthinkable, leveling the match up in stoppage time for Spurs, however, it wasn’t enough as his finish was cancelled out just seconds later by Tuminello.

Tottenham will continue its ICC campaign on Saturday against fellow PL side Manchester City, while Roma turns its attention to defending Serie A champions Juventus the following day in an all-Italy affair.

Report: Galaxy seal capture of Villarreal’s Jonathan Dos Santos

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The rumors look set to come true: A report from Goal.com’s Ives Galarcep says the LA Galaxy have doubled their Dos Santos with a $5 million purchase of Jonathan Dos Santos from Villarreal.

Jonathan joins older brother Giovani with the Galaxy, and if he has half the impact of his sibling it’s going to be a high-flying half-season for Los Angeles.

[ MORE: Gold Cup Final preview ]

Jonathan Dos Santos is an organizing center midfielder with offensive upside; For a quick Premier League comparison, think Danny Drinkwater or James McCarthy. The 27-year-old has 29 caps for Mexico, and played in four of El Tri’s Confederations Cup matches this summer.

He’ll help facilitate chances for star attackers Romain Alessandrini, Giovani Dos Santos, and — hopefully — Gyasi Zardes.

Giovani has 23 goals and 18 assists in 52 games for the Galaxy.

Bruce Arena blends intense demands with humor to lead USMNT

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Bruce Arena bites his fingernails religiously, a habit he has had since age 10.

Among some other unmentionables.

“Are you kidding me? I’m sure there’s plenty of those,” the U.S. coach acknowledged with a chuckle, “I don’t make that public information, though.”

Arena walks across midfield soaking in the California sun and surveying the scene as his players take a lap and begin stretches ahead of training on a practice field adjacent to Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes.

[ MORE: PST’s Gold Cup Final preview ]

He crosses his arms and paces – side to side, forward and backward – eyes up always. He shifts his hands to his hips and steals a glance downfield to where the goalkeepers are doing individual work.

“I’m thinking about my investments and retirement and things like that,” Arena cracked, then added: “I’m observing the players and looking at their habits, trying to learn as much as I can about players on a daily basis. It’s not only game day. When you have a team and there’s 23 players, every player is important. So sometimes your contributions aren’t only on game or on the field and it’s other things. You look at the qualities of players both on and off the field.”

With his quick wit off the field and demanding nature on it, Arena has instilled a calm and a swagger the U.S. squad needed, and that has bred success again after fans reached panic mode. Now, Arena can become the first to coach three CONCACAF Gold Cup titles if the Americans can beat surprising Jamaica on Wednesday night. The U.S. won under Arena in 2002 and `05.

“I came in with Bruce in January and I think initially you saw someone who’s trying to get points across and be pretty serious about it, but as we realized his demands and his intentions he’s been able to kind of dial it back a little bit,” midfielder Graham Zusi said. “Very dry, good sense of humor. It’s important, especially in these long camps, to have some kind of comic relief as well.”

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

On Monday, Arena reminded his players it was here in the Bay Area where the Americans regained momentum in March by beating Honduras 6-0 in a World Cup qualifer.

Arena, a member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame who turns 66 in September, has led the team to an 8-0-5 record since he returned in November for a second stint as coach, replacing Jurgen Klinsmann after the Americans’ first 0-2 start in the final round of qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

“Four months ago we were rebuilding our program, a program that was in desperate shape of being in a position to qualify for a World Cup and all other things,” Arena said. “We’ve made great strides over the last four months. This is a great opportunity for us to continue to make progress. We’d love to win the Cup.”

The U.S. is seeking its sixth Gold Cup title and first since 2013. Nine different players have scored so far this tournament, most notably Clint Dempsey‘s record-tying 57th goal in a 2-0 semifinal win against Costa Rica on Saturday that matched Landon Donovan’s mark.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

“Coming into the situation, into the job, we were in a tough spot,” Dempsey said.

Under Arena, the Americans have momentum again regardless how Wednesday turns out. Qualifying resumes with matches against Costa Rica on Sept. 1 at Harrison, New Jersey, and four days later at Honduras. The hex concludes against Panama on Oct. 6 in Orlando, Florida, and at Trinidad and Tobago four days after.

“It’s a good group of guys, let’s start there,” veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “But Bruce has kind of come in and kind of took the edge off a little bit. That’s who he is as a person, that’s how he manages us, and he’s kind of allowed us to be ourselves and have that swagger. The one thing I would say about Bruce, which has kind of always been the case but more so now, I think he is more relaxed off the field and much more demanding on the field. He’s always kind of had that balance but it’s more extreme now, and it’s a very good thing. He asks the world of us on the field, whether it be training or games he asks us for 110 percent every day, and then when you’re off the field he’s joking, he’s very jovial and he kind of lets us be who we are.”

Arena took over with little room for error. A decade ago, he never would have envisioned himself in this spot now.

“I’m enjoying it, and I’ve always thought about what I was going to do in my mid-60s,” Arena said. “I thought I was going to retire at 55, so I’m a little bit behind schedule right now. Probably going to keep going for a while, doing something. I’m thinking from what I can tell I probably could be a sportswriter and do pretty well.”

Then added with one of those sly grins, “Nah, I’m only kidding.”