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.

Vote of confidence? Woodward says Mourinho, players “fully united”

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If you thought a Manchester derby defeat would be the final nail in the coffin for Jose Mourinho’s tenure at Manchester United, think again.

[ MORE: Fulham hire Claudio Ranieri after firing Slavisa Jokanovic ]

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward put to bed any speculation that Mourinho would be fired during the current international break — as many had speculated might be the case — despite the club’s poor start to the Premier League season. The Red Devils sit eighth in the table, a dozen points back of leaders Manchester City after as many games played.

Not only is Mourinho going nowhere this week, Woodward insists everyone at the club remains “fully united” and pulling in the same direction — quotes from the Mirror:

“On the pitch we remain well-positioned in the Champions League, and although we’ve had a mixed start to our domestic campaign, the squad and the manager are fully united in their determination to regain our momentum in the Premier League.”

Woodward would hardly come out and say, “We’re far from pleased with the performances of Mourinho and the players, if things don’t turn around he’s gone in [X-number of] games,” but the fact he’s been forced to speak about the topic indicates Mourinho’s place at the club is hardly secure or guaranteed.

Chelsea facing possible two-year transfer ban

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Chelsea face a two-year transfer ban, allegedly recommended by FIFA’s integrity and compliance unit, over their signing of foreign under-18 players.

[ MORE: Fulham hire Claudio Ranieri after firing Slavisa Jokanovic ]

According to documents from Football Leaks, French website Mediapart claims 19 of the club’s signings — 14 of which were under the age of 18 — have been looked at in a three year-long investigation. Former striker Bertrand Traore is the most well-known of the players, and allegedly the most egregious of the transfers, in question.

It is alleged that Chelsea misled FIFA over the date Traore signed his first professional contract with the club and when he was registered with the English Football Association. The Burkinabe forward made 25 appearances — at under-16, under-18 and first-team levels — for Chelsea despite allegedly not being registered with the FA.

His initial contract is also alleged to have been a four-and-a-half-year deal, when the limit for players under the age of 18 is capped at three years.

[ MORE: Chelsea expected to let Gary Cahill leave on loan in January ]

FIFA transfer rules stipulate that players can only be transferred to another country if the player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for non-footballing reasons.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid each endured transfer bans for similar misdeeds with under-18 signings in recent years.

Scudamore gets $6 million as he leaves Premier League

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LONDON (AP) Premier League clubs have agreed to give departing chairman Richard Scudamore $6 million over three years despite a public backlash.

The Football Supporters’ Federation had urged clubs not to give Scudamore the money after news of the planned payment leaked. But the league says “the payments are in recognition of the outstanding work Richard has carried out over the last 19 years.”

In a statement after a meeting of the 20 clubs on Thursday, the league said Scudamore will “remain available in an advisory capacity,” and justified the payments as being a “vital” part of “a comprehensive set of non-compete clauses.”

Premier League clubs vote VAR into use for 2019-20 season

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It’s been inevitable for quite some time, but now it’s official: video review will be used in the Premier League when the 2019-20 season kicks off next August.

[ MORE: Fulham hire Claudio Ranieri after firing Slavisa Jokanovic ]

20 of 20 current PL clubs voted on Thursday to confirm the use of the modern technology beginning next season.

The Bundesliga and Serie A began using the video assistant referee (VAR) at the start of the 2017-18 season, and have continued (successful) operation of the system in 2018-19. Major League Soccer introduced the protocol two-thirds of the way through its 2017 season, to far greater degrees of varying success. La Liga is set to begin use of VAR next season as well.

[ MORE: England vs. USMNT preview ]

VAR was first used in the English game last season, when select FA Cup fixtures were used as test runs, while the same is being done in the EFL Cup this season.