MANAUS, Brazil – The United States faces Portugal Sunday in a match that would send the Americans through to the second round of the World Cup with a win.
In the days leading up to the match, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo has been built up into a bogeyman by fans and media. A very handsome bogeyman to be sure, but the rumors of Ronaldo’s dominance are greatly exaggerated.
His talent is without question, however Germany proved in the opening match that talent can be canceled out with strong defense. Ronaldo was marked out of Portugal’s game against Germany, and save for a few scarce opportunities from free kicks, was ineffective in his team’s 4-0 loss.
There are no Michael Jordans in soccer. No one has the ability to completely take over a match in such a dominant way. Yes, players like Ronaldo or Messi can control tempo and rhythm in a match, contribute moments of individual brilliance, and make the payers around them better. But Ronaldo or Messi can’t will a victory the way Americans saw Jordan do during his reign. Soccer simply doesn’t allow it.
An organized, cohesive unit on the pitch is greater than any one player. Look back on the past decade’s World Cup champions: Spain, Italy, and Brazil. Great individual players of course, but none so great that he could undo the rest of the team with a bad individual performance or injury.
Then look at the record of great individual stars. Messi didn’t score a single goal in the 2010 World Cup, and though Argentina navigated to the quarterfinals, it was decimated by Germany 4-0 upon arrival.
In that same World Cup, Ronaldo’s lone goal came in a 7-0 rout of North Korea. Portugal was bounced in the second round by Spain, with Ronaldo making nary a peep.
The World Cup rewards great teams, not great players.
Heading into the match against Portugal, that philosophy was the focus for goalkeeper Tim Howard.
“If you pay too much attention to Ronaldo, someone else will beat us,” Howard said. “We have a game plan in place … but he’s not the only one.”
The U.S. will have to reckon with Ronaldo, but the path to success against Portugal doesn’t run through him, it runs through the U.S. players.
If the U.S. outplays the other ten Portuguese players on the field, it will be successful regardless of what Ronaldo has in store for.