Unsung heroes in the win over Ghana, the ball-winning midfielders will again need to be in top form when the Americans face Portugal on Sunday.Headlines tend to gravitate toward goals and guts. It's only natural. For John Brooks and Clint Dempsey, that has meant heaps of attention in recent days.
But let's take a moment to dissect the contributions from two unsung heroes of the U.S. national team's 2-1 win over Ghana on Monday: midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman.
Much has been made of the USA's on-field philosophy in the buildup to this World Cup. After settling on a 4-2-3-1 alignment in World Cup qualifying, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has not only added a 4-4-2 diamond to the arsenal over the past 12 weeks — he's made it his go-to look. Turning central midfielder Jones into a hybrid left winger in the final send-off friendly against Nigeria added another wrinkle.
While it's difficult to be overly positive regarding tactical choices that saw the Americans possess just 38 percent of the ball Monday, the deployment of Jones and Beckerman worked wonders. If the USA wants a result against Portugal on Sunday, it'll need similar production in Manaus.
TOUCHES BY JERMAINE JONES (LEFT) AND KYLE BECKERMAN VERSUS GHANA
Although there was some worry about Jones' ability to widen the U.S. attack and protect left back DaMarcus Beasley, a look at his touches shows remarkable discipline. He tucked inside and clogged passing lanes when needed but didn't abandon his responsibilities wide.
Jones' ball-winning prowess was crucial to stifling a Ghana attack that went after Beasley time and time again. In fact, Jones won more than twice as many duels (15) than any other U.S. player. While the USA funneled its attacks through the opposite side, where right back Fabian Johnson's average position was some 20 yards ahead of Beasley's, it was Jones who provided the clever assist on Dempsey's 30-second goal.
In the holding midfield role (shading to the left), Beckerman enjoyed a 23-for-27 passing day and won six duels of his own. To compare, Michael Bradley had twice as many giveaways while winning just a single duel. Even though those numbers aren't awful for an advanced playmaker, Bradley actually ended up in a deeper role next to Beckerman for most of the match. As it turned out, Beckerman's sturdiness helped paper over the cracks that emerged on a rare off-day from Bradley.
TOUCHES BY CRISTIANO RONALDO (LEFT) AND NANI VERSUS GERMANY
All of this brings us to the next match, and the 4-3-3 Portugal will likely line up in Sunday. Portugal's center forward options don't prompt much fear, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani should provide plenty of reason for concern. For as much comfort as the USA can take in knowing its best defender (Johnson) is matched up with Ronaldo, the Ballon d'Or winner isn't so easily contained.
Ronaldo, of course, has a penchant for collecting the ball on the left flank and cutting inside to shoot with that lethal right foot. He'll also drift off the ball to provide a target in central areas, or simply swap flanks with Nani. After Ghana decided to pick on Beasley, it frankly would be surprising if Portugal didn't use Ronaldo for the same purpose.
Whether the USA will again go 4-4-2 or shift back to the 4-2-3-1 is unclear. The absence of Jozy Altidore (hamstring) raises the possibility of Dempsey playing as a lone striker, with a winger entering the fold and Jones joining Beckerman and Bradley in the middle.
Yet how the Americans line up is largely inconsequential, as Klinsmann likes to point out. Whatever the formation is, Jones and Beckerman will be key to closing the central gaps between the midfield and defensive lines. Those are the spaces that Ronaldo and Nani look to expose, after all — they're not going to camp on the sideline and knock balls into the box.
And if Jones is wide, his support of the left back will again be critical. Being clean in possession also is important to the USA across the board, considering how dangerous Ronaldo makes Portugal on the counter.
It won't be an easy task. But if the victory over Ghana was any indication, it's one the American midfield is equipped to handle.