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.
A point is a good result for the US. Progression from the group stage looks very probable, and is even very possible with a US loss against Germany on Thursday at Noon ET/9am PT.
This was the game plan after all: Beat Ghana, draw Portugal, and go into the Germany game hoping things fall into place.
That the US wanted to win the game against Portugal isn’t called being greedy. It’s called being good.
While the win over Ghana expelled certain demons and ensured that the US would be in the thick of the World Cup chase for the duration of the group stage, it didn’t expel the one very troubling, ugly question in the mind of many: Is this US team going to be any good against the best opposition?
Four Four Two magazine, you get a little love here. You predicted zero points and zero goals for the US in Brazil? The Americans have already proven so many people wrong with their performance.
Turns out, they are good enough. Players like DeMarcus Beasley, a 32-year old converted left back who looks like he could be running his 35th Boston Marathon next spring, were flawless against Portugal.
Kyle Beckerman, another 32-year old player who spent his entire career in MLS waiting for a shot in the big-time, was superb.
Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, former roommates making the rookie minimum salary with the Kansas City Wizards are coming up huge. These guys are good enough. They can play with anyone in the world.
On one end, Cristiano Ronaldo fired a breakaway chance into the crowd. On the other, Jermaine Jones took a corner kick deflection, took one step, and belted one of the best goals of the World Cup past a helpless Beto.
Twenty minutes later, a scramble play started by the maligned Seattle product DeAndre Yedlin led to Clint Dempsey stuffing the go-ahead goal in with his stomach.
No one leaves Manaus happy. One look at the empty expression on the face of Ronaldo after the last-gasp equalizer from Varela, or the thinly veiled look of disgust from Paulo Bento on the bench tells you that Portugal were devastated with the result.
They had to beat the United States. They were expecting to beat the United States. In the end, they were lucky to draw with the United States. Now, Ronaldo’s team is all but out.
The shame in not winning for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team is the tinge of sadness clouding the swell of pride in this performance.
Of course, it wasn’t flawless. And the US were helped by Portugal’s brittle quality and a poorly managed game from Bento that saw the Portuguese change formations three times and make two substitutions by the end of halftime, water break included.
Geoff Cameron’s early mistake was a throwback to 2010, and the late goal from Varela is the latest in normal time in World Cup history. Before this tournament, that was a distinction held by Landon Donovan’s winner against Algeria.
Michael Bradley’s substandard play continues to confound, and while his late turnover stings most; he faded so badly in the game that it was hardly a surprise.
It was a role reversal from the first group game, when the US stole the result with a goal very early and a goal very late between being dominated in the middle portion of the match.
Of course, a draw will do the job for both Germany and the US on Thursday morning, but even if old friends Low and Klinsmann do want to take it easy in Recife, with the US involved, I wouldn’t count on that happening. We’re in for two more excruciating hours.
Klinsmann is the right man to have at the helm. In a club season, where his contradictions and fallacies would build on each other week after week, he’d never make it. But in a major tournament, Klinsmann’s positivity, belief, and energy are constant advantages.
He coached the hell out of this game, and was 30 seconds from becoming a hero. For now, that status waits.
We also have to wait for the US’ first come-from-behind victory at the World Cup, but this result did hold certain patterns. It was the ninth US World Cup game in a row that either finished tied or with a one-goal difference. It was the ninth World Cup game in a row that the US has scored in.
Needless to say, it wasn’t worth it to bring on Gonzalez for Zusi. That’s the margin at the World Cup. If that extra minute and Varela’s goal is what knocks the USA out, it will be one of the cruelest exits from a major tournament in recent memory.
But I think this team is going through on Thursday. They played a fantastic game against Portugal. Now more than ever, they’ve earned their nation’s belief.
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