SAO PAULO – Tim Howard was walking through a back area of Arena das Dunas late Monday night after the goalkeeper helped the United States defeat Ghana 2-1 in the teams' World Cup opener when whatever euphoria he was feeling was jarred by a simple question.
How are you going to stop Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world's best players and star of Portugal, the Americans' next opponent this Sunday?
Howard let out a half laugh, half sigh before looking at the questioner and shrugging his shoulders. "I don't know, you have any ideas?" he joked.
How about have Ronaldo not play due to injury?
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The U.S. will continue to plan to face the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, as he'll likely make a go of it no matter what. However, in what would be the biggest bit of good fortune yet for the Americans, media speculation in Portugal continues that Ronaldo could drop out of the World Cup because of a patellar tendon injury in his left knee. The injury has limited his preparation but has not healed.
Right now, the plan to play seems intact. Ronaldo participated in a light, 45-minute practice in Campinas, where Portugal is based during the World Cup. As befitting his famed good looks and status as a top talent, his appearance was met by wild cheers from onlookers, according to Reuters, including screams from dozens of young women who watched through a fence as he ran laps.
His knee was iced after practice, which has been a common occurrence as doctors and trainers try to keep him on the field.
Meanwhile, dire stories continue in Portugal. The El Confidential newspaper ran a story Wednesday quoting Ronaldo's own doctor saying he shouldn't continue because further injury could threaten his career.
Surgeon Jose Carlos Noronha told the newspaper that an MRI of the knee shows significant pressure on the tendon and that further play could cause a tear that could be devastating. He said he personally recommended to Ronaldo that the 29-year-old forward immediately take two months off from all activity to let the knee heal.
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Ronaldo has an $11 million-per-year contract with Real Madrid, where he scored 31 goals in 30 games last season.
"Let your knee rest, or your future is in danger," Noronha told Ronaldo, according to El Confidential.
The paper wrote that Ronaldo told the doctor, "I'm the one that says whether I'm playing or not."
Portugal lost its opener 4-0 to Germany in an infuriating, frustrating and humiliating result for a world power. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made note that an angry Ronaldo might play even better than ever against the Americans. He was already concerned with the Portuguese attack.
"Portugal is definitely a different caliber than Ghana," Klinsmann said Tuesday. "It's one of the favorites, actually, for the tournament and has very exceptional players. We are well aware of that, but we are not comparing them to Ghana."
Even a limited Ronaldo is a benefit to the Americans, as he is the kind of talent that can score goals singlehandedly and would put considerable pressure on a U.S. defense that is still proving itself at the elite level. He did not stand out against Germany, which doesn't mean the defense isn't focused on constant improvement.
"We all believe in each other," American midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. "We all deserve to be here, we've earned that right to play here. [We're] more than capable of handling different things. We have size, strength, speed back there as well. … So we have a good group, and everybody's strong."
No one on the U.S. side would shed a tear if Ronaldo heeds the advice of his doctor. A victory would assure advancement out of the group and into the round-of-16 knockout stage, and even just a tie would put the Americans in terrific shape heading into their final group game next week against Germany.
The U.S. is already benefitting from a red card given to Pepe, Portugal's best defender that will make him miss the match.
As for the Portuguese top offensive threat, it'll be wait and see.