By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (June 11, 2014) US Soccer Players – The USMNT faces three formidable opponents over the next two weeks at the 2014 World Cup. Although the first game against Ghana in Group G remains key and will set the tone for the tournament, the second match could be the most important. Portugal in Manaus. Portugal is not only an outside favorite to win the World Cup, but it also features the best player on the planet in Cristiano Ronaldo.
Given that it plays the USMNT, it seemed only fitting that Portugal spent a week in the United States preparing for the World Cup and playing two friendlies (against Mexico and Ireland) before flying off to Brazil. The team not only took advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities – the same used by the NFL’s New York Jets – but also got the opportunity to train in relative tranquility and anonymity. Portugal avoided the sort of distractions that would have accompanied the squad had they decided to stay back at its training center in Estoril a little longer.
“I am very confident that with the players we have, the medical staff and the quality of the facilities that it has helped us prepare well,” Portugal coach Paulo Bento said. “We have had everything we needed to make sure that we are fully fit and ready.”
Indeed, the sprawling 130,000-square-foot facility – known as the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center – is about an hour’s drive from New York City. This past week, the Portuguese players appeared relaxed and focused. In training, Cristiano Ronaldo showed off his samba moves and he and his teammates even tossed around a football – the pigskin variety – following practice. The mood was jovial – the atmosphere Bento was looking for as the team enters Monday’s game against Germany. That allowed the players to mesh after spending 10 months on their respective club teams.
As we saw against Ireland on Tuesday night at MetLife Stadium, Portugal plays a fast game, uses the wings effectively and forces opposing defenses to scramble with its attack-minded 4-3-3 formation. Although none of these pre-World Cup friendlies are a real barometer of what to expect at the World Cup, they do give fans and observers alike the chance to see teams up close and verify a lot of what we already know. Portugal’s 5-1 win certainly did that. The following day, the Portuguese sports tabloid La Bola featured the headline “Ronaldo Adds Brazilian Flavor” splashed across its front page.
Ronaldo, who had been nursing a knee and thigh injury, looked very healthy in his first game since leading Real Madrid to the Champions League title a few weeks back. His passes were laser perfect and his timing impeccable (despite the slippery field), exactly the sort of traits we’ve come to expect from the reigning World Player of the Year. The game was never close and Portugal’s domination effectively turned it into a training session. Ronaldo played 66 minutes on the left wing before Bento subbed him to a chorus of cheers. These games may not mean much, but they do serve as a morale boost going into a competition like the World Cup.
The humidity and crowd support (nearby Newark has a large Portuguese-American community) in a way mimicked the conditions they could expect in Manaus when they play the USA. Portugal should feel right at home in Brazil. They speak the language and could have the crowd behind them during the first round. It’s not as if Jurgen Klinsmann needed any reminding, but Portugal is a strong team. Depending on how each team does in its opening match, USA-Portugal could decide who advances to the knockout stage.
Can Portugal win the World Cup? The team has all the ingredients and talent to do so. It will all come down to Ronaldo’s fitness. Without Ronaldo, Portugal is a very different team. Like a car with no engine, the other parts are there but are of little use.
If this past week is any indication, Portugal will have a splendid tournament.
“I am satisfied,” said Bento. “We are not the best team in the world, but not the worst. We have to go and continue to play our game.”
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