Team USA not dwelling on missed opportunity versus Portugal
Jun 22, 2014 at 11:04p ET
MANAUS, Brazil --
When the final whistle rang sharply and heartlessly through the muggy Brazilian night, the United States men's national team lingered on the field. They didn't seem to want to leave. To leave was to accept that the game was over, that they had really given away the lead in the final 30 seconds of extra-time. And that they now needed a result from their final game.
The throaty bands of USA fans who had come all this way, to the heart of the world's largest rain forest, and watched their team get an apparent 81st-minute winner only to spoil it, hung around too. The stadium slowly emptied but the Americans on the field and in the stands were slow to depart, staring at the field, mouths agape, wondering what in the world had just happened.
Thirty seconds had separated them all, this valiant mass of red, white and blue, from escaping the group of death with a game to spare, with wins -- call them upsets, if you must -- over Ghana and Portugal in the books. But on the game's very last play, as the sweltering heat and cloaking humidity had fairly well ground the contest to a halt, Portugal's superstar Cristiano Ronaldo finally delivered. He lifted the ball to Silvestre Varela, whose ill-contested header made it 2-2 and undid Jermaine Jones' scorching equalizer after an early Portuguese go-ahead goal, and undercut Clint Dempsey's would-be winner, which he gamely bodied into goal.
Germany still awaits in Recife on Thursday. But instead of traveling there safe in the knowledge that progress to the Round of 16 -- the stated American objective in this tournament -- was secure, math will play as big a part in the match as goals.
With a win, the Americans win the group and likely avoid Belgium in the Round of 16. With a draw, Germany wins the group and the USA progresses as runners-up. A loss makes things tricky. The concurrent Group G game, between Ghana and Portugal would either have to end in a tie for the Americans to advance, or be won without the goal difference with the USA being made up by the victor. Ghana is currently two goals worse off than the USA and Portugal five.
Following the game, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn't quite as peppy as usual, but he could still smile. He was already looking at the outcome at a healthy remove, a vantage point from which things didn't look so bad. Four points from two games is about as many as they had expected before traveling down to Brazil. "Starting the tournament, we would have been very happy," he said. "Obviously, when you get a goal in the last second of the game, it's a bummer for a moment that you have to swallow. We're going to move on quickly. We won't talk anymore about Portugal, it's off the table."
"Football is cruel sometimes," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "It ebbs and flows. We try to take every result as it comes. We'll give ourselves twelve hours or so to ponder the result. But tomorrow will be a new day. We've got a great chance in the Group of Death."
Klinsmann had been positive about the result in the locker room, emphasizing what had already been secured over that which had slipped away. Perhaps his unshakable positivity, the upbeat message he delivers in good times and bad, was artifice. But if it was, it worked. The players, while exhausted and refusing to conceal their understandable disappointment, appreciated the silver lining.
"I think we had one foot in the door, so there's a small bit of disappointment," said Howard. "But realistically we've given ourselves every chance to advance. So we're optimistic, we're pretty much right where we wanted to be when we started this whole process. We wanted to go into the last game feeling like a chance -- and we do."
They had performed much better than against Ghana and largely outplayed Portugal -- outlasted them certainly. They were pleased with that. And so the USA wouldn't dwell on the mistakes or what might have been. They wouldn't allow a really useful tie to feel like a terrible loss.
Will they settle for a tie with Germany, which secures everybody's passage into the next round -- even if it means Die Mannschaft wins the group? German reporters kept asking that, referring to a "peaceful draw."
"I don't think that we are made for draws," said Klinsmann, adding that they want to win the group. "The United States is known to give everything they have in every single game." He wouldn't be calling his former assistant Joachim Low, who has managed Germany since Klinsmann left the job in 2006.
It's worth remembering here that when the USA has qualified for World Cups with games to spare in the past, they have kept playing hard, as if it was all still on the line. "We would have gone to try to win the last game even if we would have qualified tonight," said midfielder Kyle Beckerman. "It's just in our nature. It's the American way. We're going to go; we're going to fight. Nobody wants to see us go out and lay down and lose."
The last game matters now, whereas it would have merely been treated like it did if the USA had held on for 30 more seconds. "I think we like to do things the hard way," said defender Matt Besler. "It's the American way."
So the USA needs a result. For about 14 minutes they didn't think they did. But now they do. It only took an hour or so to accept that and get over it. And to remember that this team would have played Germany as if its life depended on it anyway.