By Sean Hartnett
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Gathered inside packed bars from coast to coast, American soccer fans’ celebrations suddenly turned sour as Silvestre Varela’s last-gasp equalizer bulged the back of the U.S. net in the 95th minute.
Less than one minute of stoppage time was all that separated the United States from sealing a 2-1 victory that would have sent them to the round of 16 at the World Cup in Brazil. Cristiano Ronaldo and the mighty Portuguese were on the brink of group stage elimination, and Varela’s powerful header earned Portugal both a draw and a lifeline.
Soccer can sometimes be the cruelest of sports. In the blink of an eye, everything changed for a U.S. team that had seemingly punched its ticket to the knockout stage.
Usually dependable U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley’s touch betrayed him, as he failed to control a descending ball in Portugal’s end. The Portuguese attack suddenly sprung to life. Ronaldo received the ball on the right wing and delivered an inch-perfect cross, straight into the path of Varela’s head. American keeper Tim Howard had no chance of saving Varela’s header. A stunned Howard grabbed his head, and then kicked the ball away in frustration.
Seconds later, the full-time whistle sounded and the scoreboard read 2-2. On one end of the stadium, Portuguese supporters swayed in delight. Their celebrations were in sharp contrast to the mood on the other end of the arena, where American fans were still processing the shocking conclusion. Some held their heads in their hands, while others stared at the pitch in pure disbelief.
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had pulled all the right strings. His tactics were spot-on and every substitution worked like a charm. The Americans dominated every aspect of the match, yet sometimes perfection fails to be enough. That’s why soccer — and particularly the World Cup — makes such enthralling viewing.
No one could have imagined that American defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones was capable of scoring a precise, curled effort like he did in the 64th minute. Few could have envisioned the Americans controlling long spells of possession against a highly talented Portuguese midfield that includes the superb Joao Moutinho.
The Americans had successfully curtailed the rampaging runs of Ronaldo, who was held in check for the majority of the match by Jones and fellow defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman. All Ronaldo needed was one chance to show his world-class ability. Bradley’s miscue allowed the floodgates to open. Portugal transitioned quickly from defense to attack, to find an up-field Ronaldo, who unleashed his devastating cross. That one chance changed everything.
Klinsmann’s men deserved all three points on a sweltering humid night in Manaus. For all the dominance, hard effort and sweat put in by the Americans, all they had to show for it was an unjust lone point.
MAN OF THE MATCH: CLINT DEMPSEY
A strong “man of the match” argument can be made for Jones, who was excellent in defense and attack. He scored an excellent curler and broke up numerous Portuguese attacks. His harassing defensive play made life difficult for Ronaldo, Moutinho & Co.
That being said, captain Clint Dempsey excelled as the lone striker. With injured striker Jozy Altidore unavailable due to injury, Dempsey was forced into playing a not-so-ideal role. He shined, making darting runs. He caused all kinds of problems for the Portuguese back four, athletically spinning and turning past defenders. His speed was a constant threat. His go-ahead goal was a product of alert positioning. Throughout the match, Dempsey linked well with the midfield.
USA match ratings: GK Howard – 6.5, RB Johnson – 7.5, CB Cameron – 5, CB Besler – 6.5, LB Beasley – 6, RM Bedoya – 6, CM Jones – 8, CM Beckerman – 6.5, CM Bradley – 5.5, LM Zusi – 6, ST Dempsey – 8. Subs: Yedlin – 7, Wondolowski – N/A, Gonzalez – N/A.
U.S. NEEDS A DRAW TO ADVANCE TO THE ROUND OF 16
All four teams in Group G are alive with one match remaining in the group stage. Both the U.S. and Germany are even with four points, though first-place Germany currently holds a lead over the United States based on its superior goal difference of plus-four, compared to USA’s plus-one. Ghana and Portugual each have one point. The Ghanaians have a minus-one goal difference, while Portugal’s goal difference is a minus-four.
On Thursday at noon ET, USA will face Germany, while Portugal versus Ghana kicks off at the same time. Sunday’s result has blown Group G wide open. Klinsmann’s troops will be in for the ultimate test against a star-studded German team.
Germany’s lineup is packed with clever playmakers including Mesut Ozil, Tony Kroos and Mario Gotze. Manuel Neuer has established himself as the best keeper in the world. Thirty-six-year-old striker Miroslav Klose is a goal-poacher of the highest quality and equaled the all-time record of 15 World Cup goals on Saturday. The scary thought for the United States is that both Klose and top-class midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger are yet to crack the German starting eleven during this tournament. That speaks volumes about Germany’s tremendous depth.
It’s hard to argue against the opinion that Klinsmann is getting the most out of his World Cup roster. Heading into the tournament, the United States was considered by some experts as unlikely to earn a single point in the “Group of Death.”
The underdog Americans have punched above their weight all tournament. They will have to continue that trend against the heavily favored Germans on Thursday.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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