USA 2, Portugal 2: World Cup Soccer Is a Flat Circle

By Mike Cardillo

The United States has qualified for the knockout rounds of the 2014 World Cup before Germany.

What are sentences you’ll still have to wait to read in your lifetime, Alex.


United States 2, Portugal 2. Soccer is a flat circle, or something.

Cruelly, the U.S. plays one of its better games in its World Cup history and ties — a tie that feels like a loss right now thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s pinpoint cross to Silvestre Varela in the 95th minute.  Yes, it’s hard to get too mad about that pass itself — great players do great things. For 94 1/2 minutes Ronaldo — the best or second best player in the world — contributed nothing to the match. Nada. Zilch. Well, except for a weird haircut with lines in it.

But that cross.

That pinpoint cross was all it took.

Michael Bradley’s unfathomable giveaway in the Portugal end on a tackle by Eder — a forward, no less — prompted the Portugal’s hard-t0-believe response. Even so, Ronaldo still has to make that pass. The U.S. bottled him up for so long and were undone by one miscue. Sports often and always don’t make sense. U.S. fans were probably scrambling to hit record on their phones to document the victory at about the same time Ronaldo let fly.

Of course, that’s U.S. Soccer in a nutshell. One step forward, followed by a couple steps back. At the World Cup the U.S. never, evvvvvver makes it easy. There’s a reason the team is now 0-16-5 when allowing the first goal in the World Cup. There’s a reason the team is only 0-3-2 after a win at the World Cup since 1990.

Fortunately this isn’t the end of the world. The U.S. still controls its own World Cup fate on Thursday vs. Germany. A win or a draw and Jurgen Klinsmann’s team is through. A loss? It comes down to how many goals they lose to Germany by and the Ghana/Portugal result. For some perspective Brazil, the hosts and pre-tournament favorites haven’t qualified with four points from two matches, either.

However you want to couch it or whatever silver lining you want to take — this game stings. This is a match that causes you to lose sleep or your appetite. Everything was there. Everything. But nope. Cristiano Ronaldo had to remember he was Cristiano Ronaldo at the worst possible time. Yet … the U.S. played so well for stretches it’s hard not to be somewhat encouraged save for the madness in the 95th minute.

In the immediacy of the draw, it’s hard to think that Varela’s header isn’t some sort of soccer cosmic readjustment for the win against Algeria four years ago, or even the John Brooks header vs. Ghana on Monday. Hell, if we’re looking at fortunate breaks, all it took were a couple of Bruno Alves’ toes to keep Clint Dempsey onside for the potential game-winning goal.

As someone who’s sat through every World Cup since 1990, the good times don’t usually last too long. For once, however, it felt in this wacky, bizarre, anything-can-happen World Cup the U.S. finally looked like it was going to buck the trend and qualify with a game to spare and the earth wasn’t going to need to spin off its axis to do it.

Why, after all the false dawns and near misses would anyone be so naive? Sunday’s result was a sobering snap back to reality after many U.S. fans across the world began to dream and think about a potential game with Russia or Algeria in the Round of 16.

All is not lost.  The U.S. still have four points from the first two games in the so-called ‘Group of Death’ and controls it’s fate, albeit against one of the pre-tournament favorites — a favorite that looks somewhat vulnerable defensively.

Bring on Germany. Hell, we still may get that aforementioned Jeopardy question, but it’ll take another three days.

Other Thoughts:

Clint Dempsey, take a bow: Let’s remind ourselves in the grand scheme of things athletes are not the real heroes. Still, it’s hard not to come away impressed by Clint Dempsey logging 80+ minutes as the lone U.S. forward with a busted nose — scoring an inelegant goal off his gut — and not tip your cap. He is a man worthy of the 100s of photoshop memes. It’s a safe bet nobody was thinking about the lack of Jozy Altidore for very long on Sunday.

Klinsmann almost got it all right: Klinsman went for a 4-5-1 type formation vs. Portugal and even though it was down a goal early on Geoff Cameroon’s gaffe that gifted Nani a goal inside of five minutes, the U.S. created more shots in the first 30 odd minutes than they had all game vs. Ghana. Klinsmann’s first sub — 20 year old DeAndre Yedlin — helped set up the second goal. The team kept believing it could win, despite trailing 1-0 for such a long stretch. Alas, as we’ve covered, one bad giveaway and an all-time cross from Ronaldo undid it all, leaving Klinsmann open to second guessing if the Germany game goes wrong.

Can his charmed World Cup life continue for a complete 90 minutes against his former team in three days?

What’s up with Michael Bradley?: Going into the tournament Bradley was designated the best player in the U.S. side, or it’s most influential. He was poor vs. Ghana and then had another day to forget vs. Portugal. There’s no sense ripping him to shreds, but his giveaway in the 95th minute might be what keeps the U.S. from the round of 16. Unfortunately, from the U.S. perspective, his miss on the doorstep wasn’t his game’s low ebb.

It’s always hard to assess when a “good” player had a bad performance. Obviously Bradley didn’t morph into a scrub overnight, but you can’t gloss over his performance  so far at the 2014 World Cup, either. If anything, it reminds you of the old trope from Airplane about picking the wrong day to stop doing _____. Bradley better not check his name on social media tonight or the next couple days.

Critics, won over: Jermaine Jones has always been a lightning rod in U.S. fan circles. His lightning bolt gave the U.S. a lifeline, tying the game and was measured as the longest goal in U.S. World Cup history. (Thanks, Nani, for a terrible headed clearance that teed up Jones.) Sure he picked up his first yellow card in 12 matches, but all is forgiven. Jones is a vital, must-start player. Given his knowledge of the German players, he’ll be as important as anyone Thursday.

Getting better: Fabian Johnson’s stock continues to increase each game. Klinsmann found a gem here at right back.

Still the No. 1: Maybe Tim Howard was at fault for Nani’s goal, going down a little early on a feint. (And gee whiz, why did Nani have to decide today to play his best offensive game in about three years?) Granted it would have been an all-time save to stop it and a very harsh criticism. He made up for it before the half to keep it 1-0. Finally, Howard had no chance on Varela’s equalizer. Most teams would still trade places with Howard in net.

Hard to dig out: Quick history: 2006, down 1-0 inside of six minutes to Jan Koller and the Czechs. 2010: down 1-0 to Steven Gerrard and England. Yes, a lot happened over the ensuing 90 minutes, but digging out from a 1-0 deficit is something the U.S. can’t keep doing.

Defensive woes: The U.S. has now only kept two clean sheets in 23 World Cup games since 1990. Cameron made a mistake on the Nani game. That can happen. Cameron also didn’t get in the way of a diving Varela on the header. That said, if Matt Besler isn’t 100 percent with his hamstring, Klinsmann will have to roll the dice with John Brooks.

Old friends: Yes, the U.S. and Germany are both through with a draw on Thursday. Yes, Klinsmann is German and coached the team in 2006. That said, players like Philipp Lahm seem to have no love lost for their former coach. Many will talk about a convenient draw a la the 1982 game between Germany and Austria, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Let’s just be happy all the U.S. has to do is draw Germany, right?

What’s left?: How much will either the U.S. or Portugal have on three days rest after playing 90 minutes in Manaus? That’s something we’ll all have to consider as we narrow in on Thursday.

Still …