Will he or won’t he?
That is the question on the minds of everyone involved in today’s World Cup match between the United States and Portugal in Manaus.
But U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley is trying to keep it in the back of his mind, hoping to slot it right near the memory of his performance in the Americans’ thrilling 2-1 win over Ghana.
The he in question is Portugal superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo, the quandary caused by tendinitis in his left knee.
The world’s best player these past few years could be trying to do dances around Bradley today, but the 26-year-old from Princeton, New Jersey, discussed the subject with a demeanor as placid as the well-manicured grounds that the U.S. team is training on at the Sao Paulo FC facilities east of the center of the city.
“We expect that he is going to play — a game of this magnitude or importance for both teams, you’d always expect that the best players are going to find any way to be on the field,” Bradley said Friday. “When you play against good players, it’s important to prepare in the best possible way. I think we’ve done that.”
More will be expected of Bradley and the rest of the U.S. defense than when it played Ghana. Bradley realizes if his effort in Monday’s win is repeated it could be costly.
“I’m certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself to know it wasn’t my sharpest match,” Bradley said. “But unfortunately they’re not all going to be. On those days, it’s still about finding every possible way to help your team.
“I think as a team we realized at a certain point that it wasn’t going to be a night for making a million passes or necessarily playing the most beautiful soccer, but it was about run and attack and closing the attack and making it hard on Ghana. In those ways, every guy on the field came away with really high marks.”
If Ronaldo plays, and even if he’s only at about 75 percent of his usual ability, it will be easier to stop the zombies in “The Walking Dead.” Zombies move in only one direction; the Portuguese forward can go around in many different ways, most of them quicker than you can say his full name – Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro.
“We understand what a special player he is, we understand how good of a team they have, but it’s not something that fazes us,” Bradley said.
“He’s a complete player. When you look at the game today, there is such a premium on the physical aspect of the game —speed, strength, endurance. And he is a guy who checks all those boxes and then when you talk about his technical ability — the way he shoots with his right foot, his left foot, how good in the air he is — he’s somebody who could make the difference at any time.”
It’s not like Bradley is using the old “build up the opponent” as a psychological tactic. Anyone in soccer knows Ronaldo is one of the few players that can, at times, grab a match by the scruff of the neck and guide it in the direction he wants it to go.
But playing the best is what any bulldog competitor worth his teeth is aching to bite down on.
“We’re excited by the challenge. We’re excited about the moment,” Bradley said. “We feel like we have put ourselves in a good position, but still everybody is mindful of the fact that it’s just one game. To follow up the start of the tournament with another good result, that’s the only thing we’re worried about at the moment.
“As far as playing Portugal right now, there are two ways to look at it. One is that they lost 4-0 (to Germany), they played 60 minutes down a guy, had a few injuries and it would be easy to say this is a good time to play them. But the other side says that it’s a team that is somewhat of a desperate team because they are playing for their lives and they need a result, and we have to respect that. We have to understand how much they are going to put into it.”
A desperate team with a magical player can be a deadly mix.
The United States will need to depend on players like Bradley, who has made 87 international appearances and is playing in his second World Cup, to answer the next important question.
Will he or won’t he matter?