MANAUS, Brazil – They were 30 seconds away -- half a minute from clinching a spot in the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup after only two games, an achievement few could have expected prior to the tournament.
“It’s the Group of Death,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Most people counted us out.”
They were 30 seconds away from writing a new chapter in U.S. soccer history. Never before had the U.S. men advanced beyond the first round in consecutive World Cups. Only 30 seconds separated the Americans from a seminal victory over a European power that would have opened the eyes of millions around the world and galvanized an increasingly engaged public back home.
Thirty seconds proved too long.
“In these tournaments, things change so quickly,” Michael Bradley said.
Indeed they do -- especially in this, the most frantic of World Cups. In the fifth and final minute of stoppage time on a muggy Sunday evening at the Arena da Amazônia, it was Bradley’s heavy first touch off a high, awkward clearance that led to a challenge with Portuguese forward Éder, which the normally reliable U.S. midfielder lost.
The ball eventually wound up at the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo, the celebrated FIFA World Player of the Year who, until that moment, had been neutralized. He found space on the right flank, froze American defender DaMarcus Beasley and curled an inch-perfect cross onto the head of Silvestre Varela. Howard was helpless.
The instantaneous reversal of fortune, the plunge from elation to despair, was enough to cause whiplash. The U.S. and Portugal ended tied, 2-2, meaning the Americans need at least a draw against powerful Germany on Thursday to ensure their tournament continues. They could also advance with a loss if the Ghana-Portugal result goes their way.
“These finishes are very emotional for all of us. For the fans, the players, the bench, and that’s what the World Cup is all about. So you live through those emotions positively and negatively and you just kind of cross it off then and move on,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “We’re going to move on quickly.”
The Americans will move on, because, as difficult as the ending was to endure and as easy as it might be to agonize over a few individual mistakes, they realize they’re in a good spot. To a man, the U.S. players filtering through the post-game media scrum grasped the bigger picture.
They had improved. Fortunate to escape Natal with a 2-1 win over Ghana in a game the Black Stars dominated for significant stretches, the U.S. often was the team on the front foot in Manaus. Most of what was lacking against Ghana – possession with purpose, coverage in midfield and options in attack – was present on Sunday. Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Matt Besler had outstanding games, the U.S. created scoring chances absent the injured Jozy Altidore and yielded two goals “that realistically can be prevented,” according to Howard.
“It’s not as if they opened us up,” the goalkeeper said.
The U.S. held its nerve for more than 94 minutes in a free-flowing, back-and-forth match and may have established an even larger lead had Bradley not struck defender Ricardo Costa with a point-blank shot early in the second half.
“Mentally, physically, we put so much into the game,” Bradley said. “I thought we played really well. I thought we were the better team over the course of 90 minutes. Unfortunately at the end, when it ends the way it does, there’s always going to be a certain amount of disappointment. But you have no choice but to look at the positives and now regroup mentally and physically and get ready for another big game Thursday.”
The primary positive is the record – 1-0-1 and four points. While the sting of Varela’s goal lingered a bit, it was agreed that four points out of two tough games is a relative success.
“We’re disappointed because we could all taste it. I think everybody could taste the second round. We were right there. But big picture, we were on the other end of things in our first match against Ghana. We had the exact opposite feelings,” defender Matt Besler said. “It’s a cruel game and there are highs and lows. We have four points. We’re in control of our own destiny and that’s really all we can ask for at this point.”
Said midfielder Kyle Beckerman, “I think before the tournament if you’d said ‘Two games, four points: you take it?’ We would. Just the way it was, being 30 seconds away, makes it tough. We’re still in good position and we’re still feeling confident.”
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati joked that he’d have rejected the four-point proposition in the 94th minute on Sunday then added, “But if you’d have offered it a month ago, sure.”
It’s all about perspective. It was fantastic theater -- a “thriller,” according to Klinsmann. Now, the U.S. can either fold after stumbling at the finish line in Manaus or take comfort in its robust response to Portugal’s fifth-minute goal and the fact that, as the manager reminded everyone before the game, “they call it the Group of Death because we’re in it, too.”
Captain Clint Dempsey, who chested home the 81st-minute goal that looked like it would win the match, has played in eight consecutive World Cup matches that ended in a tie or a one-goal win or loss. Nail-biters are the norm. And as the games go, so will Group G – down to the wire.
“We’re Americans. We always like to do things the hard way,” he said. “We’re still happy with four points from two games and we’re happy with the way that we’re playing.”
Said Klinsmann, “We are full of confidence. You make it a little more difficult now having another game to qualify, but we knew that from the beginning it would be a tough group to go through. But we are right there. We have one foot in the door. Now we’re going to walk the second foot through the door.”