EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Portugal’s final World Cup preparation match on Tuesday was more about getting everyone back on the field. Ronaldo returned and proved that he’s fit enough to make an impact, while Raul Meireles returned to the midfield and Pepe earned some minutes at centerback.
United States fans looked on eagerly with an eye on forecasting how Portugal might look against the Americans in their second Group G match on June 22, and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was no doubt among them. But of course, the focus for the United States is first on Monday’s opener against Ghana. Portugal coach Paulo Bento echoed those statements postgame Tuesday — that his team is only first focused on its respective opener against Germany — but Portugal midfielder Nani entertained the question of how his side lines up against the United States.
“We expect a strong team with a mentality and a lot of confidence, but we know we have to do our best and expect ourselves to play that game the best we can,” the winger said after setting up two late goals in the 5-1 win over Ireland.
That’s the common courtesy answer for any opponent, but here’s what the U.S. can take from Portugal’s performance on Tuesday:
— Ronaldo at any sort of fitness will be dangerous and a handful. That’s obvious statement for the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, but the health of his left knee was in question for some time. It remains a question mark, but Ronaldo at say, 75 percent, last night was enough to torch Ireland on multiple occasions. Sure, it’s Ireland, but it’s also Ronaldo.
— Of particular concern for the U.S. should be Portugal’s left side. Portugal’s second goal came from a beautiful combination between Ronaldo and Fábio Coentrão, who pushed forward with ease all night and eventually was rewarded for one of his overlapping runs with a late goal. That’s a lot of firepower for (potentially) Fabian Johnson to handle on the wing.
— That said, Johnson has done well to get forward over the last two matches against Turkey and Nigeria, and as the U.S. counterattacks he should find space on the wing with Coentrão pushed high. How effectively the United States can find that space on the counterattack will be critical to success against Portugal, who the U.S. shocked in group play at the 2002 World Cup with a 3-2 win, helping send Portugal out in the group stage. An average Ireland side showed on Tuesday that Portugal will give opponent’s opportunities, evidenced by the mental lapse shortly after halftime that led to Ireland’s lone goal.
— Mental lapses are exactly what the Americans must avoid, particularly on set piece. The big body that is Hugo Almeida scored twice Tuesday, needing just 121 seconds to show that he’s an aerial target in the box. The U.S. can sometimes switch off on set pieces and late in matches (see the Nigeria match), and struggles with marking at times (Omar Gonzalez, in particular, if he sees time centrally). Almeida and Ronaldo will make them pay. Bruno Alves hit a game-winner in stoppage time against Mexico on Friday as El Tri took their feet off the pedal a moment too soon.
— Finally, can the U.S. capitalize on a numbers advantage in the midfield? Portugal’s 4-3-3 gives the U.S. the numerical upperhand in the middle of the park — assuming Klinsmann lines up similar to how he did against Nigeria — but Bento’s system is free-flowing, with Meireles often opting to drop deep to distribute and then push forward once possession is firmly established. João Moutinho will also frequently surge forward, which will create further issues for a suspect U.S. backline.
— Oh, and that six-pass piece of brilliance that led to a Nani goal being called back for an offside call? Some of the best combination play you’ll ever see. A flash of what could be for Portugal — and what could be very scary for the United States.