He’s the world’s greatest and charismatic player, but the United States needs to treat him as just another obstacle in its path to beating Portugal and advancing to the knockout round

By Mary Cunningham

It’s the United States against Portugal today at 5:30 pm on ESPN, but the subplot is all Cristiano Ronaldo.

He rips his shirt off and the globe swoons. He places an ice pack on his gimpy left knee and the World Cup shivers. And when he steps on the field, defenders quiver.

“We’re going to have to be aware of him at all times,” says U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman. In Sunday’s game in the hothouse of Manaus, the Americans will meet a depleted Portugal team. They’ll also face the FIFA World Player of the Year who’s suffering from chronic tendinitis in his knee.

Though Ronaldo is the team captain, he did not appear at Saturday’s news conference at Arena da Amazonia. However, midfielder Raul Meireles and manager Paulo Bento said Ronaldo is healthy.

“Cristiano played the last game, he trains every day with all of us,” Meireles said. “Cristiano is fit to play, that’s all I can say.”

All things Ronaldo dominated the 30-minute news conference. There were questions about his fitness, about the pressure of being the best, about the attention he receives. On and on it went in various languages.

“I think that’s normal,” Meireles said through a translator. “We have the best player in the world and people talk about Cristiano. We are used to this and it really makes us proud that people seek him so much.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the United States, a team without a superstar with his own underwear line. Outside of goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays in the English Premier League, and Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley from their overseas stints, the Americans are no-names in comparison. Except for their coach, of course.

Jurgen Klinsmann acknowledges Portugal’s star power, but refuses to genuflect. “This is the now the moment where you can prove yourself, step up and play those guys and put them in place. We want to put Cristiano and his team in place,” he says.

Though the United States didn’t look like a world beater against Ghana, Germany’s draw with Ghana on Saturday seemed to embolden Klinsmann.

“There is a reason why they call it the Group of Death, because we’re in it too,” he says.

A U.S. win would secure passage into the knockout stage of the World Cup. A tie could be enough heading into Thursday’s game against Germany.

Turning the focus inward, Klinsmann is done with talking about Portugal.

“As of this morning, he refuses to speak about Portugal anymore,” Howard says, as all the preparation and film study is done.

Howard doesn’t have to do much film study on Ronaldo, since he has plenty of familiarity with the real thing as teammates on Manchester United from 2003-07.

He knows that a hobbled Ronaldo is still a dangerous Ronaldo. “We always knew he was special. He had skills that I had never seen … he’s the single hardest working player I’ve been around on and off the field,” Howard says.

Besides the stupefying stepovers, the heavy shots, his strength and body control, Howard marvels at Ronaldo’s ability with the ball at his feet. During a 40-yard sprint, Ronaldo moves as if the ball is attached to his cleat.

Speed, strength and endurance. “He is a guy who checks all of those boxes,” Bradley says. “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 a difference at any moment.”

The Real Madrid winger 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.

To limit Ronaldo’s impact, the U.S. needs to minimize his number of touches and sustain possession. They must converge on Ronaldo as soon as receives the ball and the outside backs must resist the urge to press forward.

At the same time, the Americans can’t focus only on Ronaldo. The No. 4 team in the world has a few other guys who can also play the game.

“It’s not just Ronaldo, I think it’s the whole team,” defender Fabian Johnson says. “They have great players … we have to stop all of them.”

Portugal’s circumstances are dire after its opening debacle against Germany. The Americans will be without striker Jozy Altidore, but Portugal will miss two top defenders — Pepe due to a suspension and Fabio Coentrao because of injury. Another loss and Portugal is headed home or as Bento put it, “We have to win or start making our suitcase.”

“There’s two ways to look at it,” says Bradley. “One is that they lost 4-0, they played 60 minutes down a guy, a few injuries, it would be easy to look and say this is a good time to play. But the other side says that it is, in some ways, a desperate team that is playing for their lives because they need a result.”

Amid all the focus on Ronaldo, midfielder Jermaine Jones drew a parallel with another group of superstars. “I always say that a team is important, not just in two or three players,” Jones says “The Spurs were the better team and that is why they won the championship.”

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