Photo by Perry McIntyre/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
MANAUS, Brazil — Cristiano Ronaldo stormed off the field after the final whistle, angry despite having just helped save Portugal from World Cup elimination seconds prior.
In that same moment, several U.S. Men’s National Team players laid on the field. They were exhausted and in dismay. A glorious chance had just been snatched from the palm of their hands.
The U.S. stood on the precipice of reaching the Round of 16 on Sunday night, having pulled off an inspired comeback at Arena Amazonia against Ronaldo and Portugal. First, Jermaine Jones scored a beauty of a goal in the 64th minute. Clint Dempsey followed up late with a dramatic close-range finish. The knockout phase was within reach.
Then, in a blink of an eye and with a mere second remaining, Varela nodded home a cross from Ronaldo in the 95th minute to crush the U.S.’s dreams of securing an early passage into the next round.
“We’re disappointed because we could all taste it. I think everybody could,” said centerback Matt Besler. “We could taste the second round. We were right there.”
Added goalkeeper Tim Howard: “Football is cruel sometimes.”
The U.S.’s disappointment was evident during the postgame talks with media, but so too was a bigger-picture mentality that eased the pain from a draw that felt more like a loss.
The Americans stand on four points from two games – almost as good of a start as anyone could have imagined or asked for from them before the tournament began – and they control their own destiny going into the final round of group games.
A draw is all that the U.S. needs against Germany at Arena Pernambuco in Recife on Thursday to reach the Round of 16 for the second straight World Cup, which might not be an easy task but is one that the Americans are up for.
“Obviously, we wanted to get that win really bad but we’re just keeping things in perspective,” said centerback Omar Gonzalez. “We have four points out of two games and we’re in good position. We’re just ready for Germany and we feel like we can get it done.”
Part of the reason for the Americans’ optimism is the fact that they put forth an impressive performance against Portugal. Yes, they fell behind early to a goal from Nani but then rebounded well by holding onto possession for large stretches. In fact, there were times in the game when Portugal had all 11 of its players in its own half while the U.S. knocked the ball around looking for cracks in the defense.
It was a far improved showing from the one that Klinsmann’s side delivered in the 2-1 win over Ghana last week, and reinforced the Americans’ belief that they are capable of going toe-to-toe with a talented opponent.
“I think the team is showing amazing progress throughout the last couple of weeks, so we build on everything that we work on,” said Klinsmann. “It’s more than five weeks, and you see more and more the quality and results coming through that building process. The way we controlled most of the game today against a very strong Portuguese side is just telling you how far we made it already.
“We’re going to build on all the good things that we did today and take all these things into the Germany game. Hopefully we can avoid then the things that didn’t go so well, which were not many, and continue that path. I think the spirit is very, very good. We are full of confidence. We made it a little more difficult now with having another game to play to qualify, but we knew from the beginning that’s going to be a tough group to go through and we are right there. We have one foot in the door. We’ve got to walk the second foot in there and get it done.”
Just as the U.S. had to manage overconfidence after grabbing a late winner against Ghana, it must now ward off any lingering disappointment with the Germany game approaching so quickly.
The Americans believe that process began almost immediately upon entering the locker room following Sunday’s match. Yes, they let a chance to reach the Round of 16 slip away but still have another to accomplish their goal.
“Realistically, we’ve given ourselves every chance to advance,” said Howard. “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 we had a chance and we do.”