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U.S. has it all on the line against Portugal

Yesterday in one sentence: Germany and Ghana played to a thrilling 2-2 draw, leading me and many others to wonder whether this means the U.S., which played poorly and still beat Ghana 2-1, is better than I thought, or whether Portugal, who was smoked 4-0 by Germany, is just really bad.

What’s on tap: Belgium vs. Russia, 12 p.m., ABC; South Korea vs. Algeria, 3 p.m., ABC; United States vs. Portugal, 6 p.m, ESPN.

What you’ll see: You may understand why I’m particularly concerned with results that directly affect the U.S., which controls its own destiny in the Group of Death. A win over Portugal puts the United States in the knockout round regardless of its result Thursday against Germany. A draw helps the United States' cause, but would still put some pressure on the side against the Germans.

Still, too much talk of what could happen going forward might take away from the game, where the United States will know it needs to improve on the performance that barely beat Ghana last week. The American soccer community will need to rethink its undying love for Michael Bradley if he turns in as dreadful of a performance as he did against Ghana, but I don’t think he will.

The U.S. defense held strong against Ghana, but today’s match will hinge on two things. First, how will the United States replace Jozy Altidore? If it remains in a 4-4-2 formation, my choice would be Aron Johannsson with Clint Dempsey to start, with a late cameo from MLS poacher Chris Wondolowski. Another interesting option is a false-nine with Clint Dempsey alone up front. Secondly, will the U.S. contain the Portuguese counter-attack? Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and local hero Kyle Beckerman will have to break up play, shield the back four, and more importantly, not give away possession so cheaply in the midfield against a Portugal side that can make you pay for it.

The match will be played in the Amazonian enclave of Manaus, and let's not forget how well the CONCACAF teams have done in the Brazilian elements thus far. Portugal is certainly more than Cristiano Ronaldo plus 10, but I think the United States wins a close game with a late winner against a tired Portuguese side.

The Belgium-Russia match also can impact the United States. The first-place team in Group G plays the second-place team in Group H, so if it advances, America can see either of these teams in the Round of 16.

Russia has work left to do after its embarrassing draw to South Korea, and could find itself in danger of not advancing with a loss to Belgium. Belgium is the class of this group and should go through, but an Algerian win today against South Korea could setup an interesting winner-take-all match for the African side against Russia next week.

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonmeoli

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