With a chance to clinch a spot in the knockout rounds against a reeling Portugal side, Graham Zusi should be the starter at right wing for the United States.
Alejandro Bedoya filled that spot for the Yanks’ opening game against Ghana before Zusi switched places with him in the second half and contributed to the game-winning goal with a perfectly taken corner kick. Against an athletic Portugal team, Bedoya’s creativity and danger in the final third seems appealing, but Zusi, for his consistency alone, deserves the nod.
Zusi’s average game for the national team has been better than Bedoya’s. While Bedoya was excellent in a handful of games – the berth-clinching game against Mexico in Columbus comes to mind – he also can float through games with almost no impact, as he did against Ghana. Zusi does not have Bedoya’s nimble ball-handling, but the U.S. knows what it will see from Zusi, which is consistently solid play down the right side.
With right back Fabian Johnson likely to baby-sit Cristiano Ronaldo (if an injured Ronaldo even plays), Zusi will be valuable in support. He’s strong enough to deny service from the midfield – Ghana’s midfield bullied Bedoya for most of Monday night – and versatile enough to track back or start a counter.
Further, one can’t overlook Zusi’s value on set pieces. He’s probably the best taker of long set pieces on the team. Zusi’s corners are dangerous consistently, and Zusi taking corners means Clint Dempsey won’t be wasted away from the play. When Zusi is on the field, Dempsey can stay in the box, where he’s much more of a problem for opponents.
With Jozy Altiodre unavailable for the Portugal game – and possibly the Germany game, especially if the U.S. is through by then – the Americans should put an added value on service into the box. Without Altidore to hold up play from the top, whoever takes his place, whether it’s Chris Wondolowski or Aron Johannsson, will need extra support from the midfield. That’s a Zusi role. Admittedly, Zusi is simple, but he rarely gives away the ball, and he’s a good connector between the defensive and attacking thirds.
Portugal, while wounded and desperate, still has enough skill to beat the United States. (Let’s not forget that Germany’s B team hung three goals on the U.S. in a friendly last summer, even though the Americans won the game.) Portugal won’t be anywhere near its best, which means it is all the more likely to attack in surges.
U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann ought to recognize Zusi’s strengths play well in this match-up. Bedoya’s ceiling might be higher, but Sunday is a real chance to escape the Group of Death with a game to spare. Reliability is the best policy for this game. Graham Zusi is the man for that job.
For The Novice: Iran and Argentina figures to be the most lopsided game of the entire tournament. The custom in soccer is to trade shirts with an opponent after the game as a sign of respect, and even the president of Iran’s federation joked about Argentinian star Lionel Messi, saying, “If Mr. Lionel Messi wants all 10 Iran shirts, he can have them.” Iran earned its first World Cup point against Nigeria, but this is the end of the line for an inspiring-but-overmatched side. Argentina is a different animal.
Game of The Day: Germany vs, Ghana, 3 p.m. Ghana has the skill to make this game interesting, but it has to defend better. If its back line plays like it did against the United States, Ghana is all but out.