SPIRIT OF 2002: USA VS. PORTUGAL
KENYA BROWN - Sunday, June 22, 2014
After securing three points in their first group game at this year's FIFA World Cup, the United States national team now finds itself in a very good position to qualify for the knockout stage.
Despite the team's 2-1 victory over Ghana, the task of getting out of the so-called "Group of Death" does not get any easier as they face Portugal on Sunday at the Amazonia Arena in Manaus.
There is no doubt the Portuguese side will be seen as the favorites to win despite injuries to left back Fabio Coentrao and forward Hugo Almeida as well as the suspension of center back Pepe. The team still has their captain Cristiano Ronaldo in the fold.
While the 29-year-old is suffering from a knee injury - and has been seen wearing a knee brace and wrapping it with ice at training - he can still be just as dangerous when he is not at 100 percent. Ronaldo has also shown that he can single-handedly take over a game as witnessed by his performance over both legs of the World Cup playoff games against Sweden, scoring all four of Portugal's goals.
The reigning World Player of the Year may be receiving the brunt of attention, but fellow teammates such as Joao Moutinho can hamper the United States' chances at progressing out of the group stage.
The United States knows they are not just taking on Ronaldo but the entire Portuguese team and the odds are stacked against them. However, if the team needs any encouragement in realizing that they can compete with Portugal, they need to look no further than to the United States national team that shocked the Iberian side at the 2002 World Cup.
It was in Suwon, South Korea, on June 5, 2002 when the Bruce Arena-led Americans took on a Group D rivals that featured players such as Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta and current Portugal head coach Paulo Bento.
Many in the press, including those from Portugal, thought it would be an easy game for the Seleccao as they had the stronger side. However, they underestimated the determination and true grit of an American side that had a point to prove to the world after the debacle that happened at the 1998 World Cup in France.
It was only four minutes into the game when midfielder John O'Brien provided the first goal of the game off a U.S. corner. A definite surprise and a lesson the Portuguese would learn for much of the game - the United States was not going to sit back and absorb wave after wave of attacks, they themselves were going to attack.
There is always a fear that a team may regret scoring too early in a game, but the boys showed no fear as they continued to attack the Portuguese goal, showing that their defense was its weak link.
Portugal's defensive frailties were further exposed in the 29th minute as an attempt to play the ball out of the back only led to World Cup debutant Landon Donovan collecting it and sending in a cross that would be deflected by defender Jorge Costa. The looping ball sailed over goalkeeper Vitor Baia and into the net to give the United States a shock 2-0 lead.
The team did not stop there as forward Brian McBride went on add a third goal for the United States in the 36th minute as he was left unmarked by the Portuguese defenders to head in a cross from Earnie Stewart.
Despite a goal from Beto, an own goal from U.S. defender Jeff Agoos and a wave of attacks from Portugal as they were desperate to avoid the embarrassment, the United States was able to hold on to win 3-2 and send shockwaves throughout the world.
The United States' strategy of starting younger players such as Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley - who were too quick for Portugal's defenders - was a key move to contending against a Portuguese side, though quite talented, were an aging team. More importantly, the United States showed no fear against a team that overlooked them on what they believed would be an easy path to the knockout stage.
The Portugal team at this year's World Cup should not be underestimated by the United States, but they should also not be intimidated by them like the 2002 U.S. team had no fear in their opponents. Bento's team has weaknesses. Therefore, it is important for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff to do their homework and come up with strategies to expose those weaknesses.
Come Sunday those 11 U.S. players on the field in Manaus should be ready to take the game to Portugal. There will be some who think they cannot compete with Portugal, but it does not matter what they think.
If any of the U.S. players have any concerns about whether they can compete with Portugal, they just need to think about those players from 2002 - underdogs to the world, but they certainly gave Portugal a shock.