Well, you can’t say United States soccer doesn’t provide enough drama. The end of USA-Portugal was like an awful final scene plot twist that leaves a bad taste in your mouth after a mostly good movie. Think The Usual Suspects, but the opposite. When Varela’s header struck the back of the net, all you could do was stare, mouth agape, at the clock. A mere 30 seconds had separated the USMNT from guaranteed advancement to the knockout round, with a win or draw against Germany on Thursday putting us at the top of the Group of Death. Now, only a win will do that.
On the other hand, as much of a downer as that final equalizer was, four points after their first two matches is really a mostly fair scenario for the United States. Against Ghana, we won a game we probably should have tied, and versus Portugal we tied a game we probably should have won. As rational as that seems, I’ve still watched that last goal about three dozen times to try and break the space-time continuum and change what happened. It hasn’t worked, so let’s wrap up the actual events.
After stellar work fending off Ghana almost the entire match, Geoff Cameron would make a massive blunder just five minutes in. A mistimed, mishit, and mis-everything attempted clearance fell directly on Nani’s foot, wide open in front of Tim Howard. Another early goal conceded spelled trouble for USA, since they were 0-14-1 when trailing at a World Cup halftime.
This is a more confident, poised side than past USMNT versions, though. The Americans would begin making inroads toward the Portugal goal, refusing to let one bad play define this match. Klinsmann’s somewhat risky decision to stick Dempsey alone up top, with five midfielders behind him, turned out to generate decent build-up for the rest of the half. A few dangerous scoring chances had USMNT fans going into halftime nervous, but optimistic.
Jermaine Jones may have been slightly unpopular with USA supporters before this World Cup, but that old feeling has been replaced by highly fond sentiments. A 64th minute wonder-strike equalizer well outside the 18-yard box will do that. I mean, just watch Dempsey duck out of the way of this heat-seeking missile of a shot.
While some Americans may have been pining for a draw and the point, the USA attack made another goal seem likely. And, in the 81st minute, there would be a reward. After a wonderful ball from Jones down the right side, young DeAndre Yedlin (who proved to be a smart choice as a substitute) used his great pace to chase down the ball and send a dangerous low cross into the box. After a brief moment of chaos, it landed on Graham Zusi’s foot on the left side, and instead of firing an ill-advised shot, he zipped it back across the box where Dempsey’s chest was waiting to deflect it in. American jubilation ensued.
There was still work to be done, though, and the United States were up to the challenge for the next thirteen and a half minutes. However, those last 30 seconds would involve a Bradley turnover, a powerful, textbook cross from (a mostly anonymous beforehand) Cristiano Ronaldo, and an unmarked Varela providing the firm header to American stomachs. The celebration would have to be delayed.
Three Big Winners
1) Jermaine Jones – He has been the best U.S. player through the first two World Cup matches, and really, no one else is close. With strong, error-free defense and creative offense, Jones’ experience and athleticism has made up for Michael Bradley’s lacking form. Before the tournament, who would’ve thought we would be profusely praising Jones and asking Bradley to step his game up?
2) Tim Howard – Barring one muffed save that struck the post, Howard was as valuable as he has been for the USMNT the last four-plus years. After the aforementioned mistake, he got back into position just in time to make a miraculous save. This was just the greatest of several impressive saves Howard made on Sunday.
3) Matt Besler – The Sporting KC defender was the best of the U.S. back four against Portugal. After being forced to exit the Ghana match at halftime due to hamstring issues, Besler came back with a wholly solid 90 minute performance. Some were questioning his athleticism against the Portuguese attack, with visions of Ronaldo blasting by a helplessly flat-footed Besler. Cristiano was not in his best form, but Besler was as reliable as they get. Instead, it was Cameron who made the big mistakes on both goals by muffing the first one and letting Varela blow by him for the game-tying second.
What in the world is wrong with Michael Bradley?
He was better against Portugal, but Bradley still has not looked like the genius field commander we expect him to be. Before this World Cup, he was the national team’s MVP. If you had told me we would get two subpar Bradley performances and come out with four points, I would be confused and thrilled. I still think our defensive posture in the Ghana match didn’t play into his skill set too well, but he has made too many uncharacteristic errors, including off-target passes and a wide-open miss in front of goal. Nonetheless, he is getting too much flack for the late Portugal goal. It was a fatigued, poor first touch yes, but the U.S. still had numbers back to blunt the Portugal attack.
How does the United States bounce back from that heart-wrenching draw?
After the unrelenting humidity of Manaus, the USMNT now travel to Recife, with one less rest day than the Germans. Both Italy and England lost their next match after playing in the Amazon rainforest that is Manaus, Brazil. Correlation does not mean causation, but the U.S. will have to recover quickly if they wish to challenge Germany and earn the right to move on. Their current four points could be enough, but don’t expect Germany to take it easy. They want to win the group just as much as the Americans. Expect more drama on Thursday.