The USMNT will need a team effort to overcome Portugal in their vital second group game in Manaus, but there are still some areas of the field which will be more key than others. One of those areas will be the U.S.’ right flank, where the deadly Cristiano Ronaldo will mainly patrol, and, hopefully, where Fabian Johnson will be in close proximity.
Two sides of Johnson’s game are going to be tested (and needed) in this match, however, because it’s not just purely about trying to limit the impact of Ronaldo — although that is the primary objective, of course. Defensively, the U.S. are going to need multiple guys to rotate and help Johnson out when it comes to defending the Real Madrid star, and to avoid leaving him one-on-one at all costs.
No matter what the U.S. do, however, it may not be enough to stop Ronaldo regardless. The defense will need to stick to the gameplan that they have to defend the Portuguese winger, and then hope for the best. That uncertainty, though, is exactly why what the U.S. right-back, Johnson, does in attack will also be crucial.
There are two things you know about Ronaldo: One is that he can completely destroy your whole team no matter what you do, and the second is that there is space in behind him for you to exploit if you’re brave enough. The U.S. needs to be brave; a draw in this game could leave the question of qualification up to goal difference and that is too risky a strategy.
Whenever the U.S. do retain possession, Johnson needs to be an attacking presence down the right flank. Ronaldo will not track him back, that’s for sure, and Johnson will be free to roam. The question then is whether the U.S. get a 2-on-1 on the Portugal left-back, or if a midfielder comes across to help him out.
If a Portugal midfielder does come across to help, then that opens up the midfield that little bit more for people like Michael Bradley to create and influence the game. Johnson needs to consistently make these runs and pose these exact problems to the Portuguese, and then either take advantage of the 2-on-1 or move the ball and take advantage of the space elsewhere.
Ronaldo can hurt you at any given time during a game, and that’s why you have to take advantage of the bit of slack he does give you on the defensive end. Johnson can really only do the best that he can on Ronaldo defensively, and then hope for the best; but on offense, he can really hurt Portugal if he’s attack minded, brave and fit enough.
Unfortunately, the heat and humidity of Manaus might just taper the amount of attacking that Johnson is physically able to do, but if he can contribute to both ends of the field, then he can be a key player for the USMNT against Portugal.