Today’s contest with Portugal is only the second match of the World Cup for the United States, but it is likely to be the Americans’ defining moment of this tournament. If the Americans win, they will qualify for the knockout round. Lose, and both Portugal and Ghana move ahead of the United States in the race for second place in Group G.
The following chart shows projected chances of qualification based on the outcome of today’s match.
A draw would be a strong result, as it would give the United States four points in the group. Four is the maximum number of points that either Portugal or Ghana could achieve after a draw in the U.S.-Portugal match. This means the United States could only be eliminated on tiebreakers. Because the first tiebreaker is goal difference, and Portugal’s goal difference is probably unsalvageable following its 4-0 drubbing by Germany, this would give the United States a huge advantage over Portugal.
But before American fans start counting out goal-difference scenarios, the United States needs to get a result against Portugal. It will not be easy, but fate and questionable decision-making have opened a door for an upset. Portuguese star left back Fabio Coentrao injured his thigh in the Germany match and has been ruled out for the remainder of the World Cup. Center back Pepe determined that a head butt would be a reasonable response to Thomas Müller exaggerating contact midway through the first half. For that he will be banned for today’s match. The Portuguese back line will thus be lacking its two best players, and their likely replacements, Ricardo Costa and Andre Almeida, are not of same quality. The United States should have opportunities to attack this weakened defense.
Perhaps the most important effect of Portugal’s injuries may be in attack. Coentrao plays a key role for Portugal, attacking forward into the wide areas that Cristiano Ronaldo abandons when he cuts inside. Because Coentrao is dangerous on the ball, opposing defenses have to keep a winger or fullback on alert to defend him, which in turn creates one-on-one opportunities for Ronaldo. With a less capable attacking fullback lined up behind the Portuguese star, the U.S. should be able to set multiple men in front of Ronaldo and try to blunt his impact.
Coentrao has not missed many international fixtures in the last several years. My database has detailed information on only six matches that Portugal has played without Coentrao in the lineup. So these results are tentative. But they suggest Portugal has struggled to attack into dangerous areas when Coentrao has been out.
With Coentrao in the starting XI, Portugal takes a slightly below-average percentage of shots from the danger zone. The international average, for quality sides, tends to run between 35 and 40 percent, but Portugal comes in at about 33 percent. That’s with Coentrao. Without their left back, Portuguese attackers take only about 26 percent of their shots from the danger zone, which would be the lowest danger-zone shot rate of all the teams in the World Cup.
One of the big drivers of this decrease is Cristiano Ronaldo’s increasingly poor shot selection. Possessed of a foot like a traction engine, Ronaldo already attempts a large number of his shots from outside the box. Without Coentrao as his partner on the left-hand side, Ronaldo has a tendency to either get stuck out wide or come inside to deeper, central areas. In neither case does he get into high-expectation shooting positions.
There is no way to prevent Ronaldo from shooting. And it is possible that today he will play the Lionel Messi role and turn a toothless attack into a long-range goal. But evidence suggests that when he is not backed up by Coentrao, Ronaldo can be contained and prevented from finding opportunities to shoot from areas where he is likely to score. The United States will need to focus its defense on frustrating Ronaldo. If he is letting fly from deep or wide positions, that is probably a sign that the American strategy is working.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.
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