The U.S. men's national team players are aware of the threat posed by the Portugal star, but remain focused on their own performances.SAO PAULO — Most of the world superstars U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman encounters in Major League Soccer stroll through a bit more deliberately than in their primes. David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane – they’ve played some brilliant soccer in the States, but never with the same magic as they conjured earlier in their careers.
So when could Beckerman ever have coped with someone on the order of Cristiano Ronaldo? Who that he might have dealt with could meet such a supreme standard?
“Yeah, sure — a guy named Messi,” Beckerman said.
Oh, yeah, him.
PHOTOS: Beautiful people in Brazil | Brazil protests | Soccer fanatics | Fan tattoos
Beckerman might not want to be bragging on that game, a 4-1 U.S. defeat to Argentina at the 2007 Copa America. His point is understandable, though. The U.S. will not be dealing with an immortal Sunday in Manaus. It only looks that way.
From a purely cosmetic standpoint, there never has been a soccer player quite like Ronaldo. As with George Clooney, Denzel Washington or, say, Jane Fonda, he has been presented with a brutally unfair combination of looks and talent. Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona look like any guy you’d pass on the street. Some might say Beckham is in the same league as far as beauty, but he never had Ronaldo’s speed.
“He’s athletic, he’s fast, technique. I think he can almost score from everywhere it seems like,” said U.S. right back Fabian Johnson, who might wind up as the player most preoccupied trying to stop Ronaldo. “When he’s trying to take a shot it’s always dangerous for the other team.”
Ronaldo scored 31 goals in 31 games for Real Madrid this past season in La Liga, and he delivered 17 in 11 Champions League matches. Matched against Sweden in a win-or-go-home World Cup qualifier last autumn, Ronaldo ripped off a hat trick that trumped Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s two goals and advanced Portugal to this very stage.
|U.S. SOCCER LATEST
“He kind of made the free kick kind of his own,” Beckerman said. "I think I read somewhere or saw something that was about he’s emulating a ping-pong shot. He just makes the ball go up and down really fast and the ball kind of does some crazy things. You’d have to ask him how he does it ... and let me know.”
If Ronaldo were infallible, however, Portugal would not have been blistered 4-0 by Germany in the World Cup opener for both teams. He would not be pulling out of training on a consistent basis because of an issue with his left knee.
If he were perfect, he might not need to remind us so often how nearly he is. Asked if he entered this World Cup having to prove his value as a legend of the game, he responded with the same humility he displayed when he tore off his jersey — revealing his model's physique — to celebrate an entirely meaningless goal in a 4-1 extra-time rout of city rival Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final last month.
“I don’t think I have to show anyone anything,” Ronaldo said. “Look at my statistics and my CV (resume). I have nothing to prove. My career has been great so far, and I just want that to continue.”
There were media reports Wednesday that Ronaldo could be risking just that by continuing to play in this World Cup, apparently in the Portuguese publication El Confidential. Its report said surgeon Jose Carlos Noronha told Ronaldo that playing on his current injury means his “future is in danger.”
Or, Ronaldo just knows just how to play this. If he plays through the pain and excels, his stature as a superstar only grows. If he struggles, well, he did try to play through the pain.
“As a team, we have a lot of respect for Cristiano; he’s a great player,” U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones said. “But I think you have to have respect for the whole Portugal team. They have a lot of good players. Okay, he is the key player, but it depends. We have a lot of respect for everybody.
“First we will try to make it our own game, look what we can do and not what can Portugal do, or what can Cristiano do. It’s up to us for what we want. When we stick together as a team, like we did against Ghana, then I think we have a chance to win this game.”
No matter how many times Ronaldo walks off the field early in training, with a bandage wrapped around the left knee so you know how bad it is, no one among the U.S. players imagines they will be facing a Ronaldo-free Portugal.
That would be just too perfect.
“We don’t make a big deal about Cristiano,” said defender Geoff Cameron. “I think we are trying to make it our own game.”