The ball was barely past United States goalkeeper Tim Howard, and already he had put his hands to his head. On the bench, Jurgen Klinsmann spun away as if he had seen a ghost. Up the field, not far from where he lost the ball, Michael Bradley could only stare.
The celebration had been epic after Clint Dempsey, the captain, the man with the black eye and the broken nose and the swollen cheek, scored just nine minutes from the end to put the Americans in front and surely — surely — into the knockout round of the World Cup. It was bedlam. It was overwhelming. It was historic.
But then, suddenly, the lead was gone. This United States team will not be the first to advance to the Round of 16 after just two group-stage games. It will not get to skate in its final Group G game, against Germany. It will not get to relax.
Instead, it will live on the precipice between success and failure for another day. That was the cost of two lapses on Sunday — one at the beginning of the game and one, brutally, at the end — that allowed Portugal to salvage a 2-2 tie at the Arena da Amazônia. Half a minute more, and the United States would have had a victory that guaranteed advancement. Now, the math is suddenly murkier.
“Football is cruel sometimes,” Howard said.
It is. Yet despite the collective gut punch that the United States endured here, the situation is not dire. A victory against Germany on Thursday in Recife would be ideal, allowing the United States to top the group. A loss would leave the Americans possibly needing to win a tiebreaker with Portugal or Ghana. A tie would also put them through, in second place behind Germany.
Given that reality, as well as Klinsmann’s heritage and connection to the German national team, questions were immediately raised as to whether he and Germany Coach Joachim Löw, Klinsmann’s former assistant, would conspire to play out a mutually beneficial tie on Thursday in much the same fashion that West Germany and Austria seemed to have manipulated a game at the 1982 World Cup that allowed both teams to advance.
Klinsmann quickly shot down the notion, saying, “That is only part of German history, not the United States.” He added: “We have that fighting spirit. We have that energy and that determination to do well in every single game. We are going to go into Recife very ambitious.”
Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, was even more forceful. “We’re going to that game trying to win the game, full stop,” he said.
Of course, the Americans thought they had won Sunday. Things started poorly for the United States, as a bad miscue from defender Geoff Cameron allowed Nani to give Portugal an early lead. The mistake did not cause the Americans to crumble, though, and they largely had the better of play before Jermaine Jones finally leveled the score in the 64th minute with a whistling shot from nearly 30 yards out that left Beto, the Portuguese goalkeeper, flat-footed.
It was a thunderous strike, the ball whizzing over Dempsey — who wisely ducked — and curling devilishly in a way that even the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo would have to admire. Jones sprinted to the sideline as the ball nestled into the side netting, pounding the U.S. Soccer crest on his jersey as his teammates erupted.
“I heard Beas behind me,” Jones said, referring to fullback DaMarcus Beasley. “He said, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot.’ So I shot.”
That goal had the United States in position for a tie, but the Americans wanted more, and, about 20 minutes later, Graham Zusi crossed the ball off a broken play. Dempsey, who scored in the opening seconds of the first match against Ghana, was lurking in front of the net, and when he turned the ball over the line, he looked to have completed the perfect bookend to a miraculous opening two games.
After watching Dempsey finish with his stomach — the captain could certainly be forgiven for not dropping his battered face for a header — Klinsmann exploded, running up and down the sideline and even pulling Zusi in for a hug and a kiss on the head. The outcome seemed almost unbelievable: The United States, which had been roundly expected to crash out of the so-called Group of Death, was on the verge of being the first team to advance.
But it was not to be. Deep into added time, Ronaldo — who had largely been neutralized by a crowded midfield strategy that Klinsmann orchestrated and the players executed — finally found a bit of space. Bradley lost the ball near the sideline, and Ronaldo seized upon the opening, swinging in a perfect cross that Silvestre Varela, a Portugal forward, barreled past Howard with a powerful header.
Portugal, which really needed a win to have any significant chance of advancing, barely celebrated. The Americans, collectively, all but collapsed.
They had run so hard for so long on a night that was so hot. The conditions were staggering, the Amazonian climate suffocating. Temperatures were in the high 80s, and humidity levels nearly 70 percent, making it feel as if the entire game were being played in a bathroom where the shower had been left on. Through it all, victory had been theirs. Then, suddenly, it was gone.
The Americans tried to be pragmatic. Klinsmann quickly preached turning the focus forward, to Germany, and the fast turnaround that would be required. They are still in control of their fate, the players said afterward. Still in command of what will happen.
It was all true, but it did not dull the pain. Dempsey let loose a monstrous roar after he scored that goal — joined, presumably, by most of the soccer-watching public in the United States — but there was only silence after Varela’s header. That came with shock, too.
“We could all taste it,” defender Matt Besler said. “We could all taste the second round.”
Then he shrugged. “I think we like to do things the hard way,” he said. “It’s the American way.”
original article via: NYTIMES