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 ]
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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.

MLS Snapshot: Red-hot RSL end Sounders’ unbeaten run at 13

Photo credit: Real Salt Lake / @RealSaltLake
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The game in 100 words (or less): With the Seattle Sounders’ 13-game unbeaten run now a thing of the past (and the final four of those games all draws), Real Salt Lake (two losses in their last two, including wins in four of their last five) might just be the hottest team in MLS not named Atlanta United (just one loss in their last 12, including wins in three of their last four; combined score: 17-3). Furthermore, Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Seattle at Rio Tinto Stadium boosts RSL into fifth place in the Western Conference, two points clear of the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, as Mike Petke’s side makes this year’s improbable, late charge toward the MLS Cup Playoffs, in much the same fashion Brian Schmetzer’s Sounders did a year ago. Jefferson Savarino, who scored one and assisted one on Saturday, has proven himself a star on the rise in recent weeks, and has RSL playing their best soccer of the year at exactly the right time.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

52′ — Savarino slams home Rusnak’s pass for 1-0 — RSL have themselves an attacking trio (Savarino, Albert Rusnak and Brooks Lennon) that loves to play together, and that joy really shines brightly in moments like this.

66′ — Mulholland slams home from Savarino’s cross for 2-0 — Savarino turned provider just 15 minutes later, getting in behind Joevin Jones, corralling Joao Plata’s through ball, and picking out Mulholland atop the six-yard box.

92′ — Rimando makes a stunning save to deny Dempsey — Clint Dempsey tried to sneak a quick free kick past Nick Rimando, but the all-time greatest goalkeeper in MLS history was over it.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Jefferson Savarino

Goalscorers: Savarino (52′), Mulholland (66′)

MLS Snapshot: FCD’s winless skid hits 10 in loss to MNUFC

Photo credit: Minnesota United / @MNUFC
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The game in 100 words (or less): Just when FC Dallas think they’ve hit rock-bottom, the fall a little bit farther. Oscar Pareja’s side saw its winless skid hit 10 games on Saturday, with a 4-1 loss away to Minnesota United, a side themselves with all of three wins from their last dozen games. Gone now are the games in hand that buoyed FCD’s hopes just a few weeks ago, as they’re now level on games played with many of the sides presently ahead of them in the race for a Western Conference playoff spot, save for Real Salt Lake (level on points) and the San Jose Earthquakes (one point ahead). Following their sixth loss in 10 games, FCD remain eighth in the West, a point behind the Houston Dynamo for the sixth and final playoff place (RSL play later on Saturday with a chance to go fifth themselves. Minnesota, meanwhile, distance themselves from the 10th-place LA Galaxy and sit just six points behind FCD, having rebounded nicely after an appalling start to their expansion season.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

14′ — Akindele arrives late, slams home for 1-0 — Tesho Akindele waltzed through the penalty area, unnoticed and unmarked, before arriving at the top of the six-yard box just in time to meet Michael Barrios’ cross.

24′ — Ramirez finishes after a beautiful through ball sets him up — Kevin Molino picked the right pass, and played it perfectly (with a bit of help from Walker Zimmerman), and Christian Ramirez made no mistake with the finish.

35′ — Ibarra volleys past Gonzalez to make it 2-1 — Ramirez turned provider on Minnesota’s second goal, lofting the ball into the penalty area for Miguel Ibarra, whose first-time take beat Jesse Gonzalez to put the home side ahead.

68′ — Shuttleworth denies Diaz from the spot — Two games, two saves from the penalty spot for Bobby Shuttleworth.

71′ — Finlay finishes some fancy build-up for 3-1 — Heartbreak on one end of the field, heartbreak on the other end of the field. Anything and everything that could go wrong for FCD, continues to go wrong for FCD.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Christian Ramirez

Goalscorers: Akindele (14′), Ramirez (24′), Ibarra (35′), Finlay (71′), Danladi (88′)

MLS Snapshot: Fire lose again, continue slide into KO round

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Chicago Fire’s slide toward the mean — some might call it regression, indicating maybe, just maybe, they overachieved during the first half of the season — continued on Saturday, following a brief reprieve to begin the month. Veljko Paunovic’s side lost its seventh game in 11 outings, falling 3-1 away to the Philadelphia Union. Bastian Schweinsteiger remains sidelined with a calf injury, but the rest of Chicago’s key figures — Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty, David Accam and Matt Polster remain in place. Chris Pontius did the majority of the damage on Saturday, bagging Philadelphia’s first two goals, followed by CJ Sapong for the third. Luis Solignac grabbed a consolation goal inside the final 25 minutes, but the damage had been done. The result means Chicago (48 points) remain third in the Eastern Conference, still four points back of New York City FC and just two points clear of Atlanta United, who have two games in hand.

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

10′ — Pontius heads the cross home for 1-0 — Keegan Rosenberry cut inside and delivered a delicate, left-footed cross into the box. Pontius got away from his man and met the ball with his head at the top of the six-yard box.

55′ — Pontius again, this time on the rebound — Fafa Picault’s shot was saved by Matt Lampson, but no one followed up to boot the rebound clear. Pontius reacted quickest, and the lead was two.

64′ — Sapong pokes it home for 3-0 — This is Sapong’s 14th of the season, tying Sebastien Le Toux’s club record (2010), and reminded me once again the Peter Vermes insisted on playing Sapong as a winger for multiple seasons before trading him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Chris Pontius

Goalscorers: Pontius (10′, 55′), Sapong (64′), Solignac (67′)

Serie A: Dybala scores two more, Juve win 4-0; Napoli perfect, too

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MILAN (AP) Paulo Dybala continued his astonishing start to the season as he netted twice to help Juventus beat 10-man Torino 4-0 in a Serie A derby on Saturday.

Miralem Pjanic and Alex Sandro scored the others after Torino midfielder Daniele Baselli was sent off after 24 minutes of the Derby della Mole.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

Dybala took his tally to 10 goals in the opening six league matches, just one less than he scored in the whole of the last campaign.

Juventus stayed perfect in Serie A, as did Napoli which won at Spal 3-2 earlier.

Roma, which has played a match less, remained six points behind after beating Udinese 3-1.

Torino shot itself in the foot early on, first by gifting Juventus the lead as Baselli and Tomas Rincon gave away possession and Dybala drilled into the bottom right corner from the edge of the area.

Matters grew worse for Torino eight minutes later when Baselli, who had already been booked, clumsily clattered into Pjanic and he was shown a second yellow card and dismissed.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

“I was too eager for the derby, I cared too much about this game. I made a mistake. I apologise to my teammates, our fans, the club,” Baselli wrote on Twitter.

Pjanic doubled Juve’s lead shortly before halftime, curling into the left side of the net after Juan Cuadrado cut back a cross.

Sandro headed in a corner in the 57th and it could have been more for Juventus but Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu pulled off some fine saves, and Mario Mandzukic hit the post.

In stoppage time, Dybala dinked the ball over Sirigu after good linkup play between Pjanic and substitute Gonzalo Higuain.

Algeria left back Faouzi Ghoulam was the unlikely match-winner for Napoli seven minutes from time, with a run from the halfway line.

[ MORE: Mauricio Pochettino — “I am in love with Harry Kane” ]

“If Spal plays like this all year, this will be a difficult place,” Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri said.

“We don’t feel we’re the `anti Juve,’ we’re a team which is getting a lot of points and we have improved in comparison to the past years: We are more able to withstand negative moments of matches.

“We have had a good start, that gives us confidence and enthusiasm to continue working.”

Spal lost its previous three matches but took a surprise lead early when Mirco Antenucci rolled the ball across for Pasquale Schiattarella, who is from Naples, to smash it into the bottom left corner.

The home side’s lead lasted only 77 seconds. Lorenzo Insigne curled an effort inside the near post.

Spal was causing Napoli problems but it was the visitors who led in the 71st when Jose Callejon headed in Ghoulam’s cross.

[ MORE: Mourinho bewildered by sending-off; Man United beat Southampton ]

Federico Viviani put Spal back on level terms seven minutes later with a free kick but Ghoulam scored what was to be the winner shortly after.

Stephan El Shaarawy scored twice to keep up the pressure on Napoli and Juventus.

All the Roma goals came in the first half, with El Shaarawy pouncing after Edin Dzeko‘s opener.

Capital side Roma has played a match less than most Serie A teams coming into the weekend, as its fixture at Sampdoria was postponed because of bad weather.

Dzeko seems determined to retain the Serie A top goalscorer award he won last year and he opened the scoring with his fifth goal in three matches.