The celebration had been epic after Clint Dempsey, the team’s captain, the man with the black eye and the broken nose and the swollen cheek, scored minutes from the end of regulation to put the Americans ahead and surely – surely – into the knockout round of the World Cup. It was bedlam. It was overwhelming. It was historic.
But then, suddenly, the lead was gone. This U.S. team will not be the country’s first to advance to the Sweet 16 through two group-stage games. It will not get to skate into its final Group G game, against Germany.
Instead, it will live on the precipice between success and failure for another day. That was the cost of two lapses – one at the beginning of the game and one, brutally, at the end – that allowed Portugal to salvage a 2-2 tie here at Arena da Amazonia on Sunday. A victory would have guaranteed advancement for the Americans; now, the math is murkier.
A win over Germany on Thursday in Recife would be ideal. A tie, too, would let the U.S. advance. A loss would make going through far more unlikely.
This much is sure: A victory here would have made it all moot, and the Americans had one in their hands. After the team allowed a horrible early goal to fall behind, Jermaine Jones leveled the score in the 64th minute with a whistling shot from nearly 30 yards out that left Beto, the Portuguese goalkeeper, completely flat-footed.
Then came Dempsey’s finish with his stomach – you could forgive him for not stooping for a header – off a cross from DeAndre Yedlin that seemed destined to go down in the annals of U.S. soccer history.
It was not to be. Deep into added time, Cristiano Ronaldo, who had largely been neutralized, swung in a perfect cross that Silvestre Varela, a Portuguese forward, sent into the net with a powerful header. Portugal, which needed a win to have a real chance of advancing, barely celebrated. The Americans, collectively, all but collapsed.
As expected, the conditions were a factor. While Klinsmann – for some reason – wore a long-sleeved shirt, most of the players were sweating from the moment they walked outside. The game began at 6 p.m. local time, but the temperature was still in the high 80s, with 66 percent humidity. The referee even allowed a water break late in the first half.
Klinsmann and his players had expressed confidence that the climate would not affect the Americans as much as other teams, if only because many of the U.S. players compete in Major League Soccer, which has a season that runs through the summer. Playing in Dallas in August, the reasoning went, was a decent primer for handling the Amazonian heat.
The European teams, on the other hand, have appeared to struggle in Brazil’s warmer climes. The sample size is small, to be sure, but in the first 10 days of games, there were ragged performances from Italy and England and Belgium and Spain and even Germany, which seemed to run out of moxie late in Saturday’s 2-2 tie with Ghana.
In addition to the heat, the Portuguese were hindered by a rash of injuries that forced them to make four changes to their lineup from the opening game. Beto, the backup goalkeeper, played for Rui Patricio, and Hugo Almeida, a forward, was also hurt. Pepe, a top defender, was suspended, and Fabio Coentrao was not even in the building – or the country – having gone home after a loss to Germany to recover from a thigh injury.
The U.S. on the other hand, had only one switch from its win over Ghana. Jozy Altidore, the only pure striker on the U.S. roster, is unlikely to return during the group stage after straining his hamstring, and Klinsmann opted to eschew the obvious replacements (forwards Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski) and instead tapped a midfielder, Graham Zusi, as part of a more compact formation.
Playing with five midfielders – Clint Dempsey started as a lone forward despite having broken his nose against Ghana – made the Americans seem as if they were hoping to cut off Portugal’s attempts to get the ball forward to Ronaldo.
It was difficult to blame them because Ronaldo, even with his injured knee, is a threat wherever he is on the field. Ronaldo, a Real Madrid winger, led his club to the Champions League title last month and finished the season with 48 goals in 42 league and European games.
Early on Sunday, however, Ronaldo was not the problem for the United States. Always artistic on the ball, Ronaldo pulled off a dip-and-dodge routine to slip away from several U.S. defenders about four minutes into the game, but that did little more than help Portugal keep possession.
It was a misplay by the Americans, rather than any sort of Portuguese wizardry, that put the U.S. behind. A few moments after Ronaldo’s trickery along the left sideline, Miguel Veloso, a Portuguese midfielder, whipped in a bouncing cross that Geoff Cameron, one of the U.S. center backs, tried to lash clear.
Instead of going halfway up the field, though, the ball shanked off Cameron’s foot and fell straight to Nani, who steadied himself and coolly ripped the ball into the roof of the net. As ecstatic as the Americans were when Dempsey scored inside the first minute against Ghana, this early goal against them could have been equally deflating.
But to the Americans’ credit, they did not crumble. During the next 20 minutes or so, the U.S. poked and prodded the Portuguese defense well, with Dempsey having a strong shot saved by Beto’s feet and Bradley, who was much more inspiring than in the first game, taking a decent attempt from outside the penalty area.
Not surprisingly, the end of the half dragged down a bit as players on both sides slacked. The U.S. dodged another disaster when Howard was saved by the post after misplaying a long strike from Nani. Howard, to his credit, recovered brilliantly and somehow managed to tip a follow-up from Eder over the bar even as he was falling in the other direction.