Charles Boehm is covering the USMNT and the World Cup for Gothamist from Brazil for the duration of the tournament. He has covered MLS and the American soccer scene since 2004, contributing to MLSSoccer.com, The Soccer Wire, and USSoccerPlayers.com.
MANAUS, Brazil - Life isn't fair, as New Yorkers will readily tell you. And the same is true for soccer, especially in the rarified air of the World Cup.
That was the harsh lesson inflicted on the U.S. national team in the still, sultry air of the Arena Amazonia on Sunday evening, as Portugal, inspired by a moment of brilliance from an otherwise ineffective Cristiano Ronaldo, stole a 2-2 draw with a last-gasp goal that robbed the U.S. of a place in the tournament's knockout stages—for the time being, at least.
“We're at the World Cup. We're at the highest level. It's a cruel game,” said U.S. defender Matt Besler in the postgame mixed zone. “It's a tough play at the end. Credit goes to [Ronaldo], though. He put in an unbelievable ball.
“With a minute left in the game, that was the first chance he got to take somebody on one-on-one, and he takes a touch and whips a ball in, something that he doesn't do. When you're playing against players like him, he can make a play like that.”
The U.S. showed admirable resolve and impressive skill to claw their way back from a 1-0 deficit after Portugal scored on a defensive gaffe by Geoff Cameron just five minutes after kickoff.
Second-half goals from Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey were the fair reward for superiority over the No. 4-ranked team in the world in just about every measurable category, and seemed to have delivered a second straight victory for coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team.
A win would've clinched qualification for the round of 16 with a game to spare, a delirious achievement given the bearish outlook for the team as they headed into this tournament as a member of a so-called “Group of Death” with Ghana, Germany and the Portuguese.
Now a positive result may be required against three-time world champions Germany in Recife on Thursday. Most scenarios have the U.S. advancing either way, though, depending on what happens in the Ghana-Portugal match that will kick off simultaneously.
“We had one foot in the door so there's a small bit of disappointment. But realistically, we have given ourselves every chance to advance,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had to make several clutch saves on the night. “So we're optimistic, we're pretty much right where we wanted to be when we started this whole process. We wanted to be going into the last game feeling like we have a chance, and we do.”
One of this sport's enduring contradictions lies in the fact that second-best performances don't always lead to defeat, and vice versa, with timely opportunism often trumping steadiness. Last week in Recife, the U.S. found themselves on the right side of this equation as Ghana controlled most of the play over 90 minutes, only to be defeated 2-1 by bookended moments of goalscoring brilliance from Clint Dempsey and John Brooks.
Against Portugal, the math was reversed. Cameron's miscued clearance fell right to Portuguese winger Nani for an early gift of a goal, and Ronaldo's laser-guided cross found the head of his teammate Silvestre Varela five minutes into an interminable second-half injury time, undoing an hour and a half of composed, skilful U.S. play.
“Football's cruel sometimes, it ebbs and flows,” said Howard. “We try and take every result as it comes. We'll try and give ourselves 12 hours or so to ponder the result, but tomorrow will be a new day.”
Varela's late equalizer was made possible by a fateful flurry of U.S. errors, starting with a turnover by steely midfielder Michael Bradley, who turned in another muted performance relative to his own high standards. Was American concentration eroded by Manaus' sapping tropical humidity? Argentinean referee Nestor Pitana's decision to call a water break late in the first half - a new wrinkle recently allowed under FIFA rules - and the number of gasping players on both sides suggested it was.
“When you concede goals, it's always a sequence of mistakes that happen, and that's unfortunate. But that's why goals happen,” said Klinsmann. “That moment, I think Michael got caught in the middle of three, four guys and loses the ball, unfortunately, and then the counter break comes.
“It's not over til it's over, both ways.”
But Klinsmann also mounted a rousing defense of Bradley, and gave lavish praise for the growth and unity of his squad amid the World Cup pressure cooker.
“Michael is undoubtedly one of our key players and I think he showed that tonight,” he said. “He has an engine that is unbelievable. He is covering up for other players all over the place. His vision and his passing was just outstanding.
“Him, it's not going to be a perfect game all the time. I'm not expecting any perfect games from anybody. I expect that they give everything they have and then if somebody makes a mistake, the other guy is there and helps him out. And this is what happens right now in this team.”
By Charles Boehm