Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAO PAULO — It didn’t take long after the question was asked for Michael Bradley to admit that he wasn’t at his best against Ghana. Bradley acknowledged that his usual sharpness was missing on Monday, and that the U.S. Men’s National Team as a whole did not play its prettiest game of soccer.
Bradley also stated that the sign of a good World Cup team is that it gets better as the tournament progresses, and he is hoping that is the case for both himself and the U.S. starting with Sunday’s match against Portugal.
The Americans are set for a visit to Arena Amazonia in Manaus to take on Portugal in their second Group G match, and a better overall showing will likely be needed from the U.S. and its midfield ace than the one they put forth in the 2-1 victory over Ghana. Bradley is fully aware of that, and is counting on both he and the U.S. to deliver a performance that leads to better play and three more points.
“When you talk about the best teams, there’s an ability to win games in all different ways,” said Bradley. “The first game was a really big step in that regard for us, but we want to feel like now as the tournament is going on we are improving and growing because the teams that are around at the end are always the teams that are able to do that.
“You obviously can’t pick and choose, but still you never want to play your best game first. You want to feel like as the tournament’s moving on, as the tournament is progressing, the team and every guy is continuing to grow and get better and get stronger.”
Bradley was far from his strongest in Natal. He mishit passes that he normally makes with a sniper’s accuracy, struggled with some of his decision-making and also was dispossessed on a few occasions. Bradley was simply not up to his usual high standards.
That likely cannot be the case again on Sunday for the U.S., as it takes on a Portugal team in need of points after losing to Germany in its opener and that boasts talented veteran midfielders Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles.
Yes, Portugal is a bit handicapped due to a handful of injuries – there are still questions about Cristiano Ronaldo’s left knee – and Pepe’s suspension. But the Portguese have the type of skill that is capable of unlocking teams and lighting up the scoreboard.
“There’s two ways to look at it,” said Bradley of playing Portugal. “One is that they lost 4-0, they played 60 minutes down a guy, a few injuries. It’d be easy to look and say, ‘This is a good time to play them.’ But the other side says that in some ways it’s a desperate team that is playing for their lives because they need a result and we have to respect that, we have to understand how much they’re going to put into it.
“The main thing is still about us. We talked five minutes after the Ghana game ended about being excited and proud of the way we started off, but also realizing that one game doesn’t mean anything. If you’re not able to follow up the first game with another good result, then the first game goes right out the window and all of a sudden you’re going into game three needing a result and looking at the other game.”
Bradley and the U.S. might be able to avoid that all together if they can topple Portugal and if Germany defeats Ghana on Saturday. That would give the Americans and Germans six points apiece and punch their tickets to the Round of 16 even before the two nations square off in Recife on June 26.
With that much on the line, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will be hoping Bradley returns to his very best against the Portuguese. Bradley’s defensive effort was there against Ghana but his attacking game needs to improve, especially since he will have to carry more of the offensive load due to the absence of injured forward Jozy Altidore.
Bradley is up for the task. Now, it is up to him to execute it.
“Portugal is obviously a very different team than Ghana,” said Bradley. “They have a good mix of skillful, technical players but still guys who physically are strong, are fast, guys who jump well. Like I said before, it’s important to prepare the game in the best possible way. We feel like we have a good idea of who they are, how they play and what makes them tick, but at the end of the day, it’s still all about what happens when that whistle blows and there’s no way to predict that.
“Do we get another early goal? Do they get an early goal? These are the things that nobody has any idea. It’s just about the overall mentality that says no matter what happens, we prepare in the best possible way and we’re ready to over the course of 90 minutes do anything and respond to anything that happens and be ready to walk off the field with another positive result.”
Expecting Bradley to return to form on Sunday? Think Portugal is ripe for the picking or even more dangerous than usual coming off an embarrassing defeat?
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