They could have hung on for another few seconds in the jungle Sunday night and pulled off a historic triumph against Portugal, but that would have spoiled the suspense. The US men’s soccer team is like the squirrel that waits until the thundering 18-wheeler is a few feet away before it dashes across the road. Why collect your ticket to the second round of the World Cup after just two matches when you can push your luck to the limit?
“I think we like to do things the hard way,” defender Matt Besler mused after his teammates had given away a victory in the waning moments in the Amazon hotbox and deferred destiny until Thursday afternoon when they meet leader Germany in the group finale in Recife. “It’s the American way.”
Since the US team returned to this quadrennial square dance in 1990, it has advanced three times, and each time it came down to the group finale. In 1994, after the Yanks were blanked by Romania in the Rose Bowl, they had to sit around for a couple days while the Germans, Russians et al decided their fate. In 2002, they needed a gift from the South Koreans, who beat the Portuguese while the US team was taking a pummeling from the Poles. Last time, it took a 91st-minute strike by Landon Donovan against the Algerians.
So this week’s high-wire act is no novelty for Uncle Sam’s procrastinating nephews. What makes it different this time is that they waited almost until the last possible second in Manaus to punt away what appeared to be a sure thing.
“We could all taste it,” Besler said after Silvestre Varela’s flying header, courtesy of Cristiano Ronaldo’s elegant cross, had equalized the game, 2-2, just before the final whistle. “We could all taste the second round.”
What the Americans couldn’t do was sink their teeth into it, possibly because they have little experience in closing out matches. Since 1950, when they denied the English for the final 52 minutes after Joe Gaetjens’s “shot heard ’round the world,” they’ve had to protect a one-goal lead only twice in the final minutes, when they held off the Portuguese, 3-2, in 2002 after nearly squandering a 3-0 lead and when they squelched Ghana last week.
Unlike the Germans and Italians, who’ve had decades of experience with locking down victories that they’ve worked diligently to earn, the Americans have made a habit of salvaging draws from impending defeats — with the Swiss in 1994, the Italians in 2006, the English and Slovenes last time.
Until this tournament, they had never been in the position of scoring the go-ahead goal with less than 10 minutes to play and having to shut down a rival, particularly during five minutes of stoppage time, which is an eternity in this tournament.
The Yanks aren’t defensive-minded by tradition nor by temperament, and it showed during the final 30 seconds against Portugal when they made three mistakes that led to a ball in the back of their net.
When Michael Bradley couldn’t control the ball in the attacking half, his turnover gave a desperate opponent just enough time for a final run. The US defenders could have disrupted it either by getting to Ronaldo more quickly or by marking Varela more closely. Instead, they conceded the fraction of time and space that the Portuguese needed to draw even.
Of such momentary miscalculations are Cup outcomes determined. Because of their admirable resilience and resolve in their first two matches, the Americans won’t need a miracle in their third one against the Germans.
If Portugal and Ghana, which each have only 1 point, play to a draw in Brasilia, the US advances. If the Yanks draw, they also advance, and if they beat the Germans, they win the group. They even can advance with a loss, as long as it’s close and Ghana doesn’t beat Portugal by two goals.
The easy solution for coach Jurgen Klinsmann and counterpart Joachim Low, his former assistant and good pal, would be to cut the kind of advance deal that Germany and Austria did in 1982 to bounce the Algerians.
“It’s not the way the US team plays,” US Soccer president Sunil Gulati declared. “We’re not going to do that.”
The Germans, who themselves called that 1982 1-0 win the “Nichtangriffspakt von Gijon” (“Non-aggression pact of Gijon”), still are hearing about it.
“That is only a part of Germany’s history,” said Klinsmann, “and not part of the United States’s history.”
His US team will play to win, the former German captain vowed. If that also is the American Way, it may be because the Yanks always have needed to win the group finale and because, unlike the Europeans, they’ve never developed the mechanics nor the mind-set involved in playing for a deadlock.
“I think if you look at the past of the US team, we always try to make things happen,” Klinsmann observed.
Not that his guys will object if the Germans insist on a draw. The Americans already have one that felt like a defeat. They’ll take one that feels like a victory.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.