Come Thursday afternoon what did — and didn’t happen — in the Amazon jungle on Sunday evening might not matter. The US men’s soccer team might not need to get a result from Germany in its group finale and still might escape from the Group of Death. But from the moment that the final whistle blew in Manaus until then, the Americans will relive the final few seconds and wonder how victory slipped away after it seemed to be so courageously earned.
“We had one foot in the door,” observed goalkeeper Tim Howard, after Cristiano Ronaldo had put the ball on Silvestre Varela’s head for the killer equalizer just a few seconds before Argentine referee Nestor Pitana would have ended the match after five minutes of stoppage time.
A victory would have put the Yanks into the second round free and clear. A draw, which puts them second in the group to the Germans on goal differential with four points, undoubtedly helps. If Portugal and Ghana draw, the US advances no matter what it does on Thursday. And if Portugal wins by anything less than a rout and the Americans play Germany close, the US still will be good to go.
“Obviously we’re disappointed, but at the end of the day you’ve got to look at the positives,” said captain Clint Dempsey, who scored what would have been the winner in the 81st minute. “We got a point.”
But his teammates, who covered their faces in disbelief and dismay when time ran out, could have bypassed all those “ifs” with three points on Sunday. For 14 finger-crossing minutes, after Dempsey belly-bumped the ball over the line to put the Americans ahead, it seemed that they were two and through for the first time in 84 years.
All the Yanks needed was one more clearance, one more ball booted downfield, and they would have had their most significant Cup victory since they beat nemesis Mexico to reach the 2002 quarterfinals.
What happened instead was their worst nightmare. A giveaway by Michael Bradley. Ronaldo, the world’s best player, dancing forward with the ball on his foot and just enough room to work. Varela slipping his mark and popping the ball past Howard for the goal that ripped the Americans’ hearts out.
“It was unfortunate,” said coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose team would have been the first US bunch to win its first two Cup matches since 1930. “An amazing game, amazing performance by our guys. Nothing more you can ask for.”
They had sweated mightily to come back from a staggering early blow, when defender Geoff Cameron’s botched clearance left a gimme for Nani in the fifth minute. Having to chase the game in the sapping steam heat might have melted the Americans into a puddle, but they hung in and eventually began dictating. Not that they weren’t fortunate. Nani’s bid just before intermission boinked off the right post and Howard, who again played brilliantly, tipped Eder’s rebound away.
The US almost certainly wouldn’t have come from two goals down to win. As it was, the Yanks never had won a Cup match when they’d trailed at the break. But they’ve traditionally done their best work at the Cup when they’ve been backed into a corner, and they owned the second half as Portugal seemed low on petrol. The US nearly tied it in the 55th minute when Bradley, who otherwise submitted a bravura performance after a where-was-he? opener, had a point-blank chance. But defender Ricardo Costa, alone on the line, thwarted him.
When the equalizer came in the 64th it was rookie Jermaine Jones with a rifle shot that left keeper Beto frozen as the ball found the far corner. From there it looked to be the Americans’ night. The go-ahead goal, by Dempsey off Graham Zusi’s cross, came at the end of a lovely bit of star-spangled pinball involving multiple ricochets.
All the Yanks had to do from there was shut it down and wrap it up, and as the clock ticked into stoppage time they seemed to have done it. The Portuguese had been out of substitutes for more than 20 minutes. The Americans kept coming at them, forcing them to spend precious seconds defending. Ronaldo, who’d been denied throughout the proceedings, seemed out of gas and out of magic.
But he knows what to do when the ball falls to his foot, and Ronaldo put it exactly where Varela, who’d gotten past Cameron, could get his head on it and direct it where Howard couldn’t get a hand on it. That was what the Yanks most feared about Ronaldo, that they could padlock him more securely than Houdini and that he would still slither out of his shackles and break their hearts.
So they were left with a draw that felt like a loss, one that puts Uncle Sam’s nephews in a position that they would have loved to avoid. “Now we have to go out and beat Germany,” said Klinsmann, who’ll get no favors from the team he once captained. “That’s what we have to do. We have one less day to recover. We played in the Amazon, they played in a place with less travel. We have to do it the tough way.”