No, Cristiano Ronaldo won’t be wearing a cape on Sunday when he and Portugal face the U.S. national team. He won’t be stopping runaway trains or putting out fires or rescuing damsels in distress. Ronaldo will be simply wearing a Portugal jersey as he carries the hopes of a country that expects him to work miracles.
How will the United States stop him? The game plan won’t involve kryptonite, but rather organized team defending, effective and sustained possession, and a few Hail Marys. It will require playing better than the Americans played against Ghana, and will demand defensive improvement from U.S. fullbacks Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley.
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The first step toward stopping Ronaldo is realizing he isn’t alone on the field. He will have a dangerous Portuguese attack around him.
“If you can get caught up, if you pay too much attention to Ronaldo, someone else will beat us,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. “We’ve go to be diligent and we’ve got to be aware of their danger men. We’ve talked about it. We have a game plan in place and now we just have to go execute it.
“Of course, he’s the main man. He’s probably the main man in this tournament,” Howard added. “We have to know where he is. We have to try to collectively get around and get some help and support each other defensively, but no, he’s certainly not the only one.”
The first step toward containing Ronaldo begins in midfield, and cutting off the supply lines to a player who can punish you in a variety of ways. Pepe’s early red card against Germany forced Portugal to remove midfielder Miguel Veloso at halftime of its opening match, which also limited the support for creative midfielders Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles.
For the Americans, having Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman working to neutralize Moutinho and Meireles will be key.
Former U.S. World Cup hero and current Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel has studied Portugal closely as part of his coaching license work, and he sees Portugal’s play on the right flank being key to freeing up Ronaldo for potential one-on-one situations.
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“When [Ronaldo] plays on the left-hand side, Portugal doesn’t attack through him too often. They tend to attack through (Joao) Pereira, their right back, and link up with Moutinho and Nani on the right-hand side,” Friedel told Goal. “It allows the other team to come over to cover then switch the play to try to isolate Ronaldo. So that’s going to be Johnson at times in the game, he’s going to be isolated 1-v-1.
“So it’s going to be up to Cameron to make sure his spacing is very good so he can cover and try to double up as Ronaldo cuts inside.”
Johnson will likely spend the bulk of the time trying to stay with Ronaldo, with Cameron supporting centrally and Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi providing support from the wing. Ronaldo could switch wings and work the right, where the weaker Beasley could struggle to deal with his speed.
If Ronaldo does beat the U.S. defense, it will be up to Howard to stop a player he knows very well. Howard spent three seasons as Ronaldo’s teammate at Manchester United, and two more seasons facing him as an opponent. They both joined Manchester United the same summer and Howard remembers a player who he could tell early on had something unique to offer.
“We always knew he was special from the moment he stepped through the door,” Howard said of Ronaldo’s arrival at Old Trafford. “He had skills that I had never seen before. Could you imagine that he would be world player of the year? Not at that time, but he certainly had the tools.
“He’s the single hardest working player I’ve ever been around, on and off the field,” Howard added. “His work ethic is incredible.”
Howard will be the last line of defense for an American back line that will be tested in any number of ways by Ronaldo and Portugal teammates Nani, Moutinho and Eder. With Portugal’s defense potentially missing three of four starters, the USA could have some success with its attack, but that won’t matter if Ronaldo is allowed to run wild and break loose like he did in the World Cup qualifying playoff, when his hat trick sent Sweden packing and Portugal to the World Cup.
The Americans are aware of what Ronaldo can do, and Klinsmann insists his team is ready to contain the Real Madrid star and book the U.S. team’s place in the round of 16.
"This is now the moment where you can prove yourself, this is moment where you can step up and play those guys and put them in place," Klinsmann said. "We want to put Cristiano and his team in place. We want to get out there with all the energy we have, with all the discipline that we're going to bring and all the aggressiveness we're going to bring to the plate and make it our game."
If Klinsmann’s game plan works, and Ronaldo has a quiet night in the Amazon, the Americans have a very good chance of securing a good result. If not? Then Ronaldo could have one of those kind of matches that make you believe he is hiding a cape under his jersey.