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Soccer / Sports

US looking ahead, not behind, in World Cup

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Juergen Klinsmann did the math ahead of time. Beat Ghana, tie Portugal and his U.S. soccer team cheats the "Group of Death" and moves on to the second round of the World Cup.

With Monday's 2-1 victory in Natal, the first task has been completed. But neither Klinsmann, the coach, nor his players were wasting time celebrating that Tuesday because much work remains to be done.

And the U.S. team's second chore, which they tackle Sunday, figures to be much tougher than the first.

"We've switched gears already," Klinsmann said. "Our total focus is on Portugal now. Ghana is far away from us already. We knew it was very, very important to get those three points. We worked hard for it. It was a very tricky game.

"But our mind is 100 percent on Portugal from now on."

Well, not really. The U.S. may have come out of the Ghana game with three points, but the Americans also came out with three injuries, leaving them hobbled as they prepare for the world's fourth-ranked team in Portugal and the world's reigning player of the year in Cristiano Ronaldo.

How hobbled Klinsmann's team is remains to be seen because U.S. Soccer did not release the results of Tuesday's MRI exams on striker Jozy Altidore and defender Matt Besler.

Not that either one figures to be a big surprise.

Altidore's test is unlikely to show anything positive. He left the field midway through the first half Monday in tears and on a stretcher after straining the same left hamstring that caused him to miss substantial time in 2011 and again last year. And although Klinsmann made happy talk about Altidore's return later in the tournament, his World Cup is probably over.

The news on Besler is likely to be more positive. He limped through the final minutes of the first half before coming out at the start of the second with a tight right hamstring, but that move was described by multiple people as being precautionary more than necessary.

"Matt is no problem. All fine for the next game," Klinsmann said.

Then there's captain Clint Dempsey, who suffered a broken nose after taking a kick to the face in the first half Monday. Even though another blow could cause serious damage, Dempsey is expected to play Sunday, probably with a protective plastic face guard.

Fortunately for the U.S., Portugal will be even more short-handed. Pepe, the team's best defender, is suspended for the game after drawing a red card in Monday's 4-0 loss to Germany, and team doctor Henrique Jones said left back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida probably will miss the rest of the World Cup because of injuries.

Portugal was also battered on the scoreboard Sunday. Its loss to Germany combined with the Americans' win over Ghana, gives the U.S. a commanding lead in goal differential, the first tiebreaker should both teams finish with the same point totals in group play.

One game into the World Cup, then, and it's all lining up perfectly for Klinsmann: a win over Ghana, a second-game showdown with a seriously wounded Portugal and a big edge in goal differential.

In fact, maybe things are going too well. That might explain why the perpetually upbeat Klinsmann seemed so glum Tuesday afternoon. Gone was the goofy grin, the nervous laugh, replaced by the kind of dread and uncertainty generally reserved for the defense table at a murder trial.

The U.S. came into the World Cup a decided underdog -- not only in the tournament, but in its group. Only two of the four teams would advance and few counted the U.S. among that number.

Klinsmann, a master motivator, milked that, calling it a lack of respect and repeatedly challenging his players to prove their critics wrong. At times he even joined the chorus, insisting his team might advance out of group play but no way could it compete for the World Cup title.

Prove the coach wrong, he was saying.

So minutes before Vice President Joe Biden entered the locker room Monday to congratulate the players, Klinsmann admonished them.

"One of the first things he said was, 'We've got a lot of things to work on,' " midfielder Alejandro Bedoya recalled Tuesday.

Klinsmann is no stranger to the unique demands and pressure of the World Cup, having played in three and coaching in his second. One game is a beginning, not an end.

"It's always difficult to move on from an emotional ending of a game into the next game," he said Tuesday. "(We're) always telling the players, 'Stay on the ground, stay focused, and the next game is more difficult than the one we just played.'

"The trick now is getting everyone focused on Portugal, on their situation, on our scouting work. We only talk now how we can beat this Portuguese team. This is our goal. We believe in it."

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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