As Graham Zusi lumbered off the sandy pitch at the Arena Amazonia to make way for a fresh, tall, athletic center-back in Omar Gonzalez, a decisive change was made.
It may have been referee Nestor Pintana himself who communicated to the touchline that he wanted to add an extra minute for Zusi’s sluggish trek, boosting the second half stoppage time from four minutes to five.
Or perhaps it was fourth official Walter Lopez who took offense himself, and took matters into his own hands.
We’ll never know. But four minutes became five, and it turns out that the game stretched 34 seconds too long.
When Silvestre Varela headed the ball into the net at 94:34 of another classic World Cup match, saving Portugal’s life and denying the United States an automatic place in the knockout stages after two group games, Tim Howard threw his hands to his head almost as quickly as he threw himself at soccer balls all night in the Amazon.
No one has reflexes like Howard. Perhaps he was first to realize the magnitude of the opportunity that the US threw away.
With its magnetic iridescence and mega-sized insects, Manaus always resembled the set of a horror movie more than the home of raucous celebration.
Varela’s late goal was heart wrenching because the USA deserved to win. They deserved that triumph and of all the accolades and glory and huzzahs that would have poured in from all corners of the world – but most of all from home where soccer had another banner day on Sunday.
The USA outplayed Portugal, thoroughly and completely. They played positive. They knocked the ball around. They scored two thrilling goals, sensational in their own way. They fought smartly and skillfully.
Cristiano Ronaldo looked hurt, and we only say he looked hurt because we can’t say he looked bad. His team was pedestrian at best.
Against Ghana, the US was barely a soccer team. They won – I’m still not sure how – but it was a 20th century style American win. Gutsy to the point of exasperation, but filled with poor soccer and stingy defense.
Against Portugal, this was a 21st century performance. It was what Jurgen Klinsmann has promised. America played a world superpower toe-to-toe. And they were seconds away from winning.
You can’t be mad at the US for letting it slip. Sad? Yes. Hurt? Of course. But the US gave everything they had. The game just went one minute too long.