USA's draw against Portugal shows just how brutal World Cup can be

The Americans put on a solid performance, but a last-second equalizer from Varela means all four teams in Group G are still alive.
MANAUS, Brazil — It was a performance worthy of a victory, but for the U.S. national team, seeing Portugal score a heartbreaking equalizer in the final seconds of Sunday night's Group G showdown had to feel every bit like a loss.

The Americans got off the mat after surrendering an early goal and played a great game. It wasn't perfect by any means — wasteful finishing and sloppy passes didn't help matters, but the U.S. played highly rated Portugal toe-to-toe and even took control of the match in the second half as the European nation appeared to tire.

Sunday's 2-2 draw was a lesson in how brutal the World Cup can be. Two lapses, one in the fifth minute and the other in the fifth minute of stoppage time, saw the U.S. go from being in the World Cup round of 16 to being thrown into a blender with Germany and Ghana for the two places in the knockout round.

It was a night for heroes and scapegoats. Heroes like Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey and scapegoats like Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley, who will do their best to erase the memories of Sunday's draw before Thursday's crucial clash against Germany in Recife.

Cameron had a hand in both Portugal goals. His muffed clearance gifted Nani a fifth-minute opener, then Cameron was beaten by a streaking Varela for the game-tying header.

Bradley had an improved performance from his disappointing match against Ghana, but he will be remembered for the open-net shot he had cleared off the line and for the turnover he committed that led directly to Varela's opening goal.

Ultimately, fatigue ruined the storybook ending for the Americans, who had nothing left in the final minutes after exerting so much energy to take over the match. You could see U.S. players staggering and struggling in the closing minutes, but so was Portugal. At least before Cristiano Ronaldo produced his only bit of true magic of the night to deliver a pinpoint cross to the head of Varela, who timed his run perfectly to catch the U.S. defense sleeping.

It wasn't all bad for the Americans. On this night, the U.S. was forced to play and attack and push for a goal and it produced much better soccer than we saw from the Americans against Ghana. Whether it was Fabian Johnson's surging runs or Jones' perfect blast of an equalizer, or Matt Besler's outstanding work in central defense, there were positives.

We kept hearing all week about how the U.S. had its game plan for Portugal and Klinsmann and his players were confident in it. They had reason to be. They limited Ronaldo's looks, cut off Joao Moutinho's passing lanes and handed target forward Eder very well.

Unfortunately, there was one minute of stoppage time too much, just enough time for Ronaldo to muster one moment of brilliance for a Portugal team that is all but assured of an early exit from the World Cup, doomed to that inevitability by the 4-0 loss to Germany that cost the Portuguese any chance of winning tiebreakers against Group G's other combatants.

Now there are realistically only three teams alive in the Group of Death, and the Americans aren't in bad shape heading into the group finale against Germany. Both teams are on four points, and a draw sends both teams through. There will be plenty of talk about the teams being likely to settle for a draw, but given Germany's attacking quality, the Americans can't take any points for granted from Friday.

That may sound like bad news for the U.S., but after Sunday's draw, and the positives we saw, it's tough to assume anything about this U.S. team. The team showed heart, the ability to create chances, and the ability to cope with world-class talent. If the Americans can improve from game two to game three the way they improved after the Ghana game, beating or tying Germany isn't impossible.

If we've learned anything about this World Cup, particularly for the U.S., it is that you can't assume you know what will happen. What we do know is that this U.S. team has impressed at the World Cup, exceeding expectations and giving all the Americans here reason to be excited.

It might not feel that way immediately after Sunday's draw, but it will eventually settle in that this U.S. team can play with anybody, which bodes well for the rest of the tournament.