USA vs. Portugal poses historic challenge for Americans: Win two in a row
The USA vs. Portugal game Sunday isn't a must-win for the Americans, and historically, that's been bad news. It has not won two games in the group stage since the first World Cup in 1930.
America's unexpectedly golden chance in this World Cup comes only for those with short memories.
If the United States can beat Portugal Sunday in the World Cup match set for 6 p.m. Eastern time in the Amazonian sauna of Manaus, Brazil, it can advance to the knockout stages with one game to spare. For a US team that was not favored to advance to the second round under any scenario, that would be quite an accomplishment.
Except, of course, it hasn't been accomplished yet.
And America's recent World Cup history is not for the squeamish.
The most memorable moments of America's World Cup history – at least since the USA began its run of seven-straight World Cup appearances in 1990 – have all come with America's backs to the wall.
Landon Donovan's 91st minute goal against Algeria in 2010, when the USA was seconds from being eliminated.
The Yanks' 2-0 win over Mexico in the round of 16 in 2002, beating their arch rival before a global audience.
The 2-1 "miracle on grass" victory over Colombia in 1994 that practically declared America's arrival as something more than soccer makeweights.
Dangle a must-win game in front of the Americans, and they attack it like 10 pounds of sirloin. Witness Game 1 of this World Cup against Ghana. Hardly Monet, but, in the end, money.
Sunday's game against Portugal is not like that. The USA can lose and still be in the thick of the race to qualify for the second round out of Group G. And when that position has forced the US to play tactically – measuring aggression with no small amount of caution – the results have not been good.
Take the 2002 World Cup, for example. The US came out with its chest hair flaming against (yes) Portugal in the opening match, stunning the team with (yes) arguably the world's best player in Luis Figo, 3-2. But then it had to make that win count.
It followed with an unconvincing 1-1 draw against hosts South Korea (not a bad result) then fell to pieces against the unfancied Poles, losing 3-1. Had South Korea not scored a goal it didn't need to beat Portugal, 1-0, in its final group game, the US would have been out.
The story was mostly the same after the USA's improbable win over Colombia – the team Pelé had picked to win the World Cup – in 1994. Few remember that the US lost its next game, 1-0, to Romania and advanced to the second round as a third-place finisher. (These days, only the top two teams in each group advance.)
America's World Cup history has been so mediocre that these results might not indicate any particular failure, but rather a regression to the mean. The US has not been a good team, comparatively speaking, so losing a game after a victory could hardly be classified as a surprise.
That said, the two times the US has been in this situation before in a recent World Cup, it has looked dreadful. Since 1990, the USA has never won two games in the group stage. Considering that a team must win at least four knockout games in a row to win the World Cup, winning two in a row is a necessary first step.
Of course, this is precisely what coach Jürgen Klinsmann wants to do. The US has never played well when it has to play tentatively, and Klinsmann doesn't want it to. That's not the American way, says the German.
Sunday, as against Ghana last Monday, much will depend on Michael Bradley, the midfield fulcrum around which Klinsmann has organized his team. The US will be as good as he is. Monday, he was dreadful, and the USA looked correspondingly ordinary, despite the dramatic 2-1 win.
Against the Portuguese, it is hard to imagine the Americans can overcome another such display. At his best, Bradley as a marauder, rampaging from one end of the field to the other, threading incisive passes and bearing down on the other team's defense, fangs bared.
There is a risk in this, of course. But then again, Klinsmann might say, we're Americans.
Tonight, Klinsmann gets his chance to show his star-spangled credentials and do something no other American coach has managed before in a World Cup.
Show that America can play like a winner.