"In this sport, "Deserve" has nothing to do with it." – Sir Ian Darke, ESPN
Odds are that if you are reading this, you don’t need to be sold on the emotional roller coaster that soccer can provide and how that is amplified to its maximum on the World Cup’s stage. Odds are that you already know that this is a game that is fought for nearly 2 hours and that the ball is touched thousands of times, but only one touch here and one touch there of the thousands will decide the outcome. So, I will spare you the long list of history teaching this again and again.
But, on Sunday, with Ghana-Germany playing to its preferred result on Saturday, the United States actually had a chance to be the first team to clinch admission into the knockout stages from Group G, and also a chance to win the whole doggone group (and still can) with a total of 4 points in the final 2 matches.
They were facing a Portugal side that was a wounded animal and one that lacked self-confidence after just being dismantled by that same German side that would have to be counted amongst the favorites to hold up the trophy in 20 days time. Portugal had 2 key players (Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almedia) missing with injuries, their center back Pepe out with a red card, and possibly the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, not at his full strength. This was the time to show them to the door.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. Not for a bunch in the USMNT that never takes the easy route. And the fires started early as a harmless ball into the area in the 5th minute ended up as one of the truly disastrous touches that this national team has endured in years. Geoff Cameron, he who played so perfectly against Ghana, almost whiffed on a clearance, but it would have been better if he did. In his partial connection with the ball, he lofted the ball over his mates and right to the shocked, but waiting Nani near the right post. Nani, who has just a part of what he once did, can still finish from that close as Howard anticipated a low shot and Nani roofed it without remorse, 1-0, Portugal.
And that quickly, the balances switched from Portugal being emotional damaged to the confident side in just 5 minutes. They then bossed the next 10 minutes as well as again, like against Ghana, you were concerned about the ability of the USA to possess and create.
But, eventually, composure was gained and the US did just that with a flurry of opportunities for the balance of the 1st half, in which they put many shots at goal, albeit many from long distance. Still, they were pushing back and easing into the match in a way that indicated they were not outclassed over overmatched against the heavily favored Portuguese.
Then, right before the half, Nani almost put Portugal into open waters with a shot from distance that caught the post after squeezing through Howard’s mitts. The ball could have easily found the back of the net, but instead caught the post flush and bounced right back into the path of Eder who had his own shot saved by an amazing job of recovery and balance from Howard who was able to get his left hand on the ball and direct it over the post. That would keep the US close at the half and with plenty of belief moving forward.
In the 2nd half, there were moments of nerves early, again, but for the most part, the US was alive in attack. Michael Bradley was on the ball and again not at his top form, wasting a few surges with poor decisions or execution. Fabian Johnson with his diving runs from that right back spot were useful, and after he was sprung loose by Graham Zusi in the 55th minute, he was able to pull the ball back inside before the Portugal keeper, Beto, could reach him. He centered it back to a sprinting Bradley who touched the ball at the top of the 6 yard box, and Beto was down and out. This left Bradley with a massive net to shoot for and only one Portugal defender – Ricardo Costa – in the center of the goal mouth. Bradley tries to get velocity on the shot, but has no accuracy as he basically shoots the ball in the one place you could not – right at Costa. It should have been a goal, but instead a wasted opportunity that might haunt them.
The attacks kept coming from the US, many off counters as Portugal was trying to feed Ronaldo with varying results. But, the goal that leveled the match in the 64th was off what appeared to be a rather harmless corner from Zusi that caught two Portugal heads on the way out of the area, but right to the feet of Jermaine Jones, a player who has absolutely impressed in these first 2 matches, and he moved around Nani back to the center of the field and let go a screamer that bent back inside the far post and settled in the back corner before Beto could even move. Amazing goal from distance and an equalizer to remember, 1-1.
Now, would the USA play for the draw? After all, that was a very reasonable mission for the day and would honestly be an outcome that would put fate very much in their hands.
Jurgen Klinsmann used one of his substitutes, in the back as he brought on another of his curious additions to the team, Seattle’s 20-year old DeAndre Yedlin for Alejandro Bedoya and then pushed him into more of a midfield spot in front of Fabian Johnson to run up and down the flank and cause issues. What a spot to put the kid into, but it was yet another move that Klinsmann got perfect as in the 81st minute – 9 minutes after Yedlin joined the match – he crossed a pass he received from Jones back into the middle for Dempsey. The pass was deflected back to Bradley, who had his untidy shot deflected to Zusi again. Zusi, sent a left foot back into the 6 and into the path of Dempsey who scored off his stomach in the 81st minute and somehow the Americans were in front, 2-1.
The ambition really was something notable about the growth of this USMNT, and the idea that they were not going to park the bus at 1-1, but rather go try to find the winner. And it appeared that they did.
What happened next was a series of small events that ended up possibly conspiring to disappoint the day. As the 80th minute became the 90th, the effects of the day in the Amazon were seen to all. The very unconventional idea of a water break in the 1st half, perhaps should have been considered again in the 2nd. Players on both sides looked positively exhausted, as the temperatures and the energy expended required a vicious toll. DeMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, and Matt Besler all had time on the ground with either cramps or exhaustion, or both.
Portugal kept pushing players forward and had a series of offside calls go against Ronaldo and his level of energy seemed to be near its bottom, as well.
The USA had been 0-16-4 all time in the World Cup when conceding the first goal, but now were moments from that first win. 4 minutes of stoppage time became 5, because of another American substitution (Omar Gonzalez for Zusi), but the defense was sound throughout. You could tell that most of the 22 on the field had slowed considerably, but desperation on both sides were allowing for small surges through the extra minutes.
Yedlin and Chris Wondolowski had both come on to help run out the clock, and in the 95th minute, it all appeared done and dusted. Portugal sent a ball up in the air to midfield, which was headed back into the center of the Portuguese half where Michael Bradley tried to settle it. As he did, he was converged upon by 4 in dark jerseys and Eder took the ball away. From there, the ball went to Nani at midfield and out wide right to Ronaldo. He had space and a bit of time, and curled a cross perfectly into the path of the oncoming Valera who had lost his marks and pounded the ball off his head and past Howard.
On the final touch of the game, the draw was achieved for Portugal, and the win was ripped from the clutches of the Americans.
Bradley has been blamed for not retaining possession, but with most of his mates withdrawn in their own half, he was outnumbered. But, the good news about withdrawn troops is that they are in the right spot for such an occasion. And, they were.
So, then what could have been done? Should Beasley have simply taken Ronaldo down on a foul? Well, that is easy to say now, but if you would have given Portugal a set piece from the corner of the area with Ronaldo on the ball, he would have been roasted. I imagine he made the right decision.
What about Tim Howard? Should he have come off his line and challenged the cross? Well, from where I sat, it looked like the perfect curling cross that was right out of Howard’s reach even if he did go for it. I think staying home was his right decision, too.
Then who? Well, for me, two exhausted players in Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron looked like they did not have the wheels to chase Valera who had only been on for 25 minutes, and it is possible Cameron didn’t even know he was there until it was too late. Johnson will likely see this play in his sleep for years to come if Thursday doesn’t go right. I imagine he either has to run with Valera or make sure Cameron does. He lets him go and it had the worst possible result.
But, if you look at that play 100 times, you will see that the USA was set up tactically in almost perfect form. They had 5 guys back against 1 Portuguese sortie running to the far post and Ronaldo found him with a magical ball that you almost have to just accept as brilliant. In a situation where the margins are non-existent, they gave just an inch and were made to pay.
And yet, they got the point against Portugal that they needed when they woke up. They had to avoid a loss and they did. It was a gutting way to go and the effects of playing in those conditions and then turning around to play Germany on Thursday at lunch is asking a lot.
However, they have set themselves up where most scenarios play in their favor. Depending on what you look at, the computers give them between a 65 and 85% chance of advancement on Thursday with all of the possible outcomes of the two matches that will be played concurrently.
They accomplished a lot, and yet, they all feel that they deserved so much more. Well, as Ian Darke said during the match, "Deserve has nothing to do with it."
If they want to play past Thursday, it appears their work is not done. But, once again on Sunday, they showed that they have a quality, resolve, and spirit that is very likely the best we have ever seen on the World Cup stage.