MANAUS, Brazil – Deep in the midst of the United States' preparations for the 2014 World Cup, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann described the tournament with one of his own signature -isms: "It's where the big music is played."
Over the course of two gut-wrenching games, his squad has proven itself to be capable of all sorts of different sounds.
In Sunday's tilt with Portugal in the steamy confines of the Arena Amazonia, the U.S. Men's National Team gave up a shocking early goal. It responded with a world-class curler from outside the box. It snatched the lead on a sloppy tally bundled home over the goal line. The team defended with guts and attacked with bravery, controlling possession and heading off attacks. In stoppage time, the game was all but won.
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All but. In the fifth of five added minutes, Silvestre Varela headed home a pinpoint cross from Cristiano Ronaldo to even the score. Seconds later, the whistle blew. With what now stands as the latest recorded goal in regulation in the history of the FIFA World Cup, the U.S. went from a 2-1 win that would have cemented its place in the second round to a 2-2 draw that puts all the pressure on the team ahead of Thursday’s showdown against Germany.
"I think everybody who had the chance to be today in Manaus will talk about this game for a long time," head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "These finishes are very emotional for all of us, for the fans for the players, for the bench and that is what a World Cup is all about. You live through those emotions positively and negatively."
The U.S. lived through plenty of both over 90+ minutes in muggy conditions. The U.S.'s flair for the dramatic reared the ugly side of its head early on, as Nani drove home the opening goal after Geoff Cameron's attempted clearance instead floated backwards over the U.S. defensive line, leaving Tim Howard stranded.
Of course, that’s when the U.S. responded with some of the best play it has ever displayed under Jurgen Klinsmann. Despite being down a goal, panic was absent. Attacks were built methodically, more often than not resulting in dangerous possession around the Portuguese penalty area if not a direct scoring chance.
So it was befitting of the game's herky-jerky rhythm when the half ended at the other end of the field, on an incredible save by Tim Howard. The goalkeeper might have done better on Nani’s initial effort that hit the post, but his backward-falling tap over the bar on Éder's follow-up kept the U.S. in the game just as they prepared to regroup at halftime.
“He had three or four huge saves," defender Matt Besler said of Howard. "That’s what we expect from him though. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world. We expect him to keep us in games and he did that.”
Portugal attempted to change things up after the break, bringing defensive midfielder William Carvalho off the bench for Andre Almeida to add some steel to its midfield, while Miguel Veloso moved to left back. The move seemed to work at first. The United States didn't generate chances quite as efficiently, and Portugal looked dangerous in the chances they had.
So, naturally, that's when the U.S. carved out its best scoring opportunity of the game up to that point. Working off a smart interception by DaMarcus Beasley at midfield, the U.S. switched sides and found Fabian Johnson streaking down the right flank. Cutting inside, Johnson drew Portugal goalkeeper Beto off his line, then cut the ball back for Michael Bradley with an expanse of goal line in front of him. Bradley fired his shot. Only the lunging kneecap of Portugal defender Ricardo Costa stopped it. The usually stoic Bradely held his head in his hands in utter disbelief.
"Fabian played a great little ball back, and at that point, it's kind of sitting up there and you're just doing anything you can to make good contact and hit the target," Bradley said. "That ball sometimes is an easy one to smash over, so you're trying to put your foot right through it, put it on target, and unfortunately he made a good play."
At this point, despair was the easy option, the most predictable way for this game to go. Yet when the ball fell to Jermaine Jones at the top of the penalty box after a 64th minute corner kick, there was only one thought on his mind. His eyes on the ball, his lips pursed, Jones darted a few paces at the edge of the box. Then he fired one of the finest goals scored by any team, at any point in what has already been a magnificent World Cup.
"I only heard “Beas” from behind, ‘shoot, shoot, shoot,’ so I shot and I am happy that it goes in," Jones said.
The U.S. were level. That would have been enough. A 1-1 draw against Portugal in which the team had kept Cristiano Ronaldo mostly contained would be an acceptable result.
So, of course, that’s when Clint Dempsey cleaned up Graham Zusi's chipped service with his abdomen, jolted to life the U.S. hopes of securing passage to the second round ahead of schedule.
“I think we showed a lot of character,” Dempsey said. “We fought our way back into the game, and I thought we played better than what we did against Ghana.”
American fans felt safe riding high. U-S-A chants rang out around the Arena Amazonia. Momentum now swung fully in the U.S. MNT's direction, all that was left was to see out the game.
That's when Varela nodded home Ronaldo's brilliant service, proving in one fell swoop the quality of the world's best player and securing a legacy of drama for a U.S. team now needing at least a draw against Germany to ensure advancement to the next round without relying on the result of the Ghana-Portugal match.
"In that moment, I think Michael Bradley got caught in the middle of three or four guys and lost the ball unfortunately," Klinsmann said. "Then the counter break comes and we were not able to get to that cross, which was a beautiful cross and so they finished it off."
Just like that, the U.S. went from securing a place to the second round to facing a Thursday showdown with Germany where both need a positive result to advance.
"We could all taste it. We could taste the second round. We were right there. So we are disappointed," Besler said. "But I think we like to do things the hard way. It’s the American way.”