Moments away from making World Cup history, the United States men’s team will feel they lost two points in settling for a 2-2 tie with Portugal.
Silenced for most of the match, Cristiano Ronaldo reminded the Americans why he entered the tournament as reigning FIFA Player of the Year. His sublime cropess into the path of substitute Silvestre Varela’s onrushing head in the 95th (and final) minute compromised one of the best-played halves in U.S. soccer history.
All is not lost, though. The U.S. still comes away with four points from the first two games, and sit pretty to qualify under a number of scenarios: [table id=4 /] The Americans came into Sunday’s contest with a 65 percent chance of advancing to the elimination rounds and left looking better despite coming within seconds of making it a full 100.
Back to the match.
For the second game in a row Jurgen Klinsmann pushed all the right buttons, almost.
Playmaker Graham Zusi replaced striker Jozy Altidore on the lineup, while captain Clint Dempsey filled his space on the field. Both put together positive performances, connecting for what was the go-ahead goal in the 81st minute. Late substitute DeAndre Yedlin made the touchline cross that started the play, while Zusi took a deflected Michael Bradley attempt and lofted it directly to Dempsey’s chest. The captain barely stayed onside and made one of the more awkward finishes of the tournament, no doubt weary of his broken nose.
It was meant to be the completion of a gladiatorial comeback to a nightmarish start. In a reversal of fortune to the match with Ghana, the United States cracked early. Five minutes in, Geoff Cameron whiffed on Miguel Veloso’s cross. It wouldn’t be Cameron’s last whiff, either. The ball fell to a wide open Nani, who buried a shot under the crossbar and past helpless Tim Howard.
The Americans were not to be denied. Though it took a quarter of an hour to get their legs back, the Von Trapps managed to hold more possession and make more promising combinations in the Portuguese half of the field than against the Black Stars in the opener.
Manhattan Beach native Michael Bradley improved on his much-maligned performance agains the West African opponents, playing creative through balls and controlling possession through the middle of the field. Indeed, ESPN commentator Ian Darke pointed out that Bradley had more connecting passes in the first 22 minutes of this game than the previous one.
Neither team pulled through again in the first 45 minutes and Portugal took a 1-0 lead into halftime. Though the Americans failed to pull a quality save out of goalkeeper Beto, their ability to pressure forward was visibly improving.
The scale continued to tip towards the United States ever so slightly. Bradley missed a golden opportunity to equalize 10 minutes into the half with only defender Ricardo Costa in front of goal. Fabian Johnson drew Beto off his line then cut the ball back to Bradley, whose one-timer went straight to Costa’s foot.
Another 10 minutes of pressure and destiny came calling. Nani lightly headed away a U.S. corner in the 64th that fell to the feet of Jermaine Jones. Earning just his second World Cup cap, Jones took a touch toward to the inside of the field and bent a perfect shot to the upper right hand corner before Beto could move a limb.
Playing with supreme confidence, Klinsmann’s men parried away attempts by Nani and Raul Meireles before taking the lead with ten minutes left. All the Stars and Stripes had left to do to win two opening games for the first time in World Cup history was keep the dam from cracking. Klinsmann oddly brought on Chris Wondolowski as a time-wasting substitution, then added Omar Gonzalez to aid the cause as the clock struck 90:00. But after getting the first word, Portugal would also have the last:
Despite playing a near perfect match, Bradley’s giveaway in the middle third of the field allowed Nani to spring Ronaldo down the right flank. Cameron made his second key defensive error of the night when he lost track of Varela to get free for the winning header. Though Germany will also likely be looking for a draw to advance atop the group, Klinsmann has to decide whether he can rely on Cameron in central defense going forward after two amateur mistakes.