You know that scene in Fight Club, when Edward Norton messes up the unfairly handsome Jared Leto, and tells Brad Pitt, “I felt like destroying something beautiful”? Well, if the USMNT want to beat Portugal on Sunday, it’s going to have to do the tactical version of that to an equally handsome Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates.
Across soccer-pundit-land, there is no consensus on how to approach the Portugal game, but it will surprise no one that every strategy revolves around dealing with Ronaldo. Some are advocating the “best defense is a good offense” strategy: keep the midfield diamond, and use the wingbacks to keep Portugal’s fullbacks on the defensive. The thinking being that those backs usually deliver balls to Ronaldo, and without an injured Fabio Coentrao, Portugal won’t have the skill in place at that position to get away with getting too far forward.
That would be a horrible mistake. Ronaldo lives for the counter-attack. His power source is the avoidance of any sort of defensive responsibility–staying up as far as he can on the field, waiting for opposing teams to push their players up on offensive runs, make an error, and give up possession. When that happens, one of his teammates can quickly slot the ball to him as he slides into open space, then join the rest of the stadium in watching in awe as he uses his superhuman speed to run at the defense in the open field, do at least 60 step-overs, bury a shot in the back of the net, and then casually take off his shirt.
The better strategy for the US in this game is decidedly unsexy. With Jozy Altidore nursing his strained hamstring, and neither Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski the same type of strong target player, Jurgen Klinsmann should opt for the 4-2-3-1, with Clint Dempsey as the lone striker, a combination of Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi, or Brad Davis as the middies, plus Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones, and the starting D, which hopefully includes a healthy Matt Besler. In that formation, there are six people sitting back and annoying Ronaldo, who will constantly be marked by either Beckerman or Jones, plus a fullback. Deprived of the counter-attack, Portugal would be forced to try and beat the US with balls played in from the wings—and here’s where they really will feel Coentrao’s absence. Plus, Ronaldo and co. just hate it when teams playing defense minded, pragmatic, soccer against them. It’s almost an affront to the honor that should be playing Portugal. “Come out and attack us like men,” you can imagine them shouting, as the Americans park the bus in front of Ronaldo’s Ferrari.
Aside from frustrating Portugal, this formation would have the US looking for its chances on set pieces and any time it can work the ball out to Zusi and (ideally) Davis to whip crosses into the box for Dempsey, Bradley, and anyone else who’s made a run forward—while, by Moses, being sure to hold solid numbers back in order to keep the Portuguese counter cut off. The resulting game could well be low-scoring, and it would certainly not be the prettiest soccer, but it’s the smartest play when you match the US skill set against Portugal’s.
Is this how I want to see the US win? No. I want them to play the game Jurgen has been trying to instill all year: a free-flowing, creative attack with Fabian Johnson making epic runs down the flank and Bradley spraying the ball out for the strikers up top, and then Mix Diskerud somehow in the game, nutmegging defenders before toe-poking the ball to Dempsey for side volley finishes, plural. I want our beautiful game to stack up against every other countries’. But as of now, if we want to get out of the Group of Death, we need to turn the pitch into a club no one’s allowed to talk about in the basement of a closed, grimy bar in a strip mall parking lot, and Tyler Durden our way into the second round. Wouldn’t that be beautiful enough?
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.