Sunday, June 24, 2018
Sports

U.S. has one target to stop: Cristiano Ronaldo

SAO PAULO, Brazil — In the wee hours Tuesday, as the U.S. team's charter traced the Atlantic coast in returning to base from its World Cup opener up north, the coaching staff's attention pivoted to Portugal.

And that meant pivoting to superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

Since December, when the Americans were drawn into the same quartet as the planet's premier performer, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his assistants have done the groundwork — scouting, studying and plotting for Sunday's match in Manaus.

If they stop FIFA's world player of the year, the Americans could secure passage to the Round of 16.

Klinsmann won't reveal his tactics, but the nature of soccer suggests a collective effort involving both attacking and defense to suppress a player of Ronaldo's mercurial skills.

"You've got to be on high alert when he touches the ball," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said, "because he's just so dangerous."

Ronaldo, the Real Madrid wing, scored 51 goals in 47 matches across all competitions in 2013-14, ending Lionel Messi's four-year reign as world player of the year. He is, according to Forbes magazine, the world's second-highest-compensated athlete at more than $80 million (including $28 million in endorsements).

"He's a complete player," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. "When you look at the game today, there's such a premium on the physical aspect of the game — speed, strength, endurance — and he is a guy who checks all those boxes. And then when you talk about his technical ability — the way he shoots with his right foot, his left foot, how good in the air he is — he's somebody who can make the difference at any moment."

But Ronaldo has been hampered by tendinitis and a muscle injury since before the tournament, and again wore a brace on his troublesome left knee Friday. Teammate Helder Postiga said Friday that "he's training with us, he's practicing with us and he's doing all the exercises. I'm not a doctor but I don't think (Ronaldo's playing status) is in question."

His knee wasn't the only thing bothering Ronaldo in Monday's 4-0 loss to Germany — he was visibly frustrated. The Americans would be happy to sour his mood again: "We will figure out ways to make it really miserable for him," Klinsmann said.

All secure: It isn't hard to figure out when the U.S. team heads to practice. Shortly before the team arrives at its temporary home in Sao Paulo, at least 10 camouflage-clad soldiers carrying shotguns and automatic weapons line both sides of the six-lane Avenida Marques de Sao Vicente.

A helicopter hovers overhead, following the team bus. State Department personnel roam the grounds, whispering into tiny wireless devices .

"I've been to three men's World Cups and three women's World Cups. And it's not any different than other situations," U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe said while, naturally, not wanting to reveal much else.

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