SAO PAULO – Think the United States can't stop a star-studded Portugal team featuring the best player in the world on Sunday?
Hey, the U.S. has done it before.
At the 2002 World Cup, the men's national team faced the same kind of challenge that confronts it this weekend, a matchup with a highly touted Portugal team boasting Luis Figo, that era's version of current megastar Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite Figo's fearsome reputation and status as the world's best – and he came in fully healthy, too – the U.S., led by coach Bruce Arena, got off to a blistering start with a 3-0 lead before holding on to win 3-2 and eventually make it all the way to the quarterfinals.
The man who got under Figo's skin and altered the course of the game was unheralded U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk, who told Yahoo Sports that he has some choice advice for the Americans.
If head coach Jurgen Klinsmann loses his voice some time between now and Sunday, he can just pin up the words of motivation from Hejduk, a man who has faith that the Americans can do the same against Ronaldo.
"You have got to take that battle personally," Hejduk said. "It might be David vs. Goliath, but you know what? Sometimes the smaller guy wins.
"Be ready. Imagine if a family member is out there to be beaten up by a guy who is twice as big. What would you do? You would fight for them and you wouldn't care how big he was. The other guy is trying to take something from you; you are trying to take something from him.
"It comes down to that inner hunger that you have."
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Hejduk took that approach against Figo. The Portuguese legend then played his club soccer with Real Madrid and started on the right wing and was matched up with Hejduk, the American in an unfamiliar role at left back, a position he had never played for the U.S.
The early stages of the game in Suwon, South Korea, were electrifying. Figo got the better of him one time with a nutmeg by sliding the ball between his feet. The next time, Hejduk clipped him on the ankle, then won a tackle, then another.
Hejduk continued to get rough with Figo, stayed close and made it a contest of muscle and power and will.
"I just had to show him that I am here to play," Hejduk said. "I tackled him like no other."
And then … Figo switched flanks. Maybe it was a tactical shakeup, maybe it was even pre-planned by the Portuguese. Or maybe Figo just didn't want to get pushed around anymore. Either way, Hejduk was buzzing with excitement, having "done my job."
The possibility of Ronaldo swapping wings is very possible on Sunday, too. He does it all the time with both Real Madrid and Portugal, usually starting on the left, but if he doesn't gain much traction against U.S. right back Fabian Johnson, he could move over and run at either DaMarcus Beasley or Timmy Chandler, depending on who starts at left back for the U.S.
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Frankly, it is a scary task. Ronaldo had an incredible season and led Madrid to its record 10th Champions League title. He was the 2013 winner of the FIFA Ballon d'Or, the current award given to the planet's finest soccer player, ending Lionel Messi's four-year run at the top.
Ronaldo does have a knee injury, though, and Portugal was memorably thrashed 4-0 by Germany in its opener. Yet there won't be a shred of complacency from Klinsmann's side, which knows full well that the World Cup is unpredictable.
Spain recovered from an opening-game loss in 2010 to win it all. The team that beat it, Switzerland, didn't even make it out of the group.
"As far as playing Portugal right now, there are two ways to look at it," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said on Friday. "One is that they have lost 4-0, they have played 60 minutes down a guy, they have a few injuries. It would be easy to look and say this is a good time to play them.
"But the other side says that it is a team that is in some ways a desperate team that is playing for their lives. We have to respect that."
One of the things American soccer has dealt with is an inferiority complex, especially when coming up against big-name European teams. It doesn't help when the most famous player in the world is on the other side.
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But the U.S. squad has shown it is prepared to fight and scrap and sacrifice for the cause, a method Hejduk thoroughly approves.
"These guys are warriors, man," he said. "Teams know they are in for a dog fight.
"If there is ever a time to say we deserve to be better respected, this is the chance. We are right on the verge of being able to prove we are a soccer power."
Sometimes former players fade into irrelevance and care little for the game once they hang up their boots. Hejduk became a fan. He still works in soccer, holding a front office position with the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer, but he also wore a team scarf and chanted encouragement on the field at halftime when the U.S. beat Mexico in Columbus during World Cup qualifying.
He is a pretty good cheerleader to have. And heading into its most vital moment of the tournament, Frankie Hejduk has a powerful lesson for the U.S. to draw upon.
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