The U.S. national team had a chance to secure a place in the World Cup round of 16, but saw that chance vanish just seconds before the final whistle was to blow on Sunday.MANAUS, Brazil — Have you ever gone to a casino and won big early, then stuck around and watched those big winnings dwindle away thanks to your inability to walk away? Even if you leave with winnings, you can’t help but feel down at the jackpot you had in your hand only to let it disappear.
That’s what the U.S. national team felt like walking off the field at Arena Amazonias following Sunday’s 2-2 tie with Portugal. Standing just seconds from first place in Group G, and a place in the round of 16, the U.S. stood helplessly as Cristiano Ronaldo whipped in a perfect cross that Silvestre Varela headed home for an equalizer that meant little to Portugal but meant two dropped points for the Americans.
From big winners to walking away with just an OK night in the blink of an eye.
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“We could all taste it. We could taste the second round,” said U.S. defender Matt Besler. “We were right there, so we are disappointed, but at the same time we were on the other end of things five nights ago in the first game. We have four points from two games, we’re in control of our own destiny, have a huge game against Germany. We like to do things the hard way. It’s the American way.”
“I think we had one foot in the door, so there’s a small bit of disappointment, but realistically we’ve given ourselves every chance to advance so we’re optimistic,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard added. “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 have a chance and we do.”
The U.S. team gave up a fifth-minute goal to Nani that looked like it might doom the Americans, but the response was a strong one for the U.S. team, which stuck to its game plan and succeeded in neutralizing Cristiano Ronaldo for much of the night.
“Coach (Jurgen) Klinsmann and his staff had an exquisite game plan and I thought we executed it brilliantly,” Howard said. “Portugal didn’t hurt us really. I think we had the better passage of play, and if you look at the two goals that realistically can be prevented. It’s not as if they opened us up and sliced us open. We contained them very well.”
Ronaldo was largely ineffective before his game-tying assist, lacking his usual sharpness on free kicks and headers, and starving for service as the U.S. defense did well to cut off the supply lines to Ronaldo.
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“It’s just funny that the final play of the game he finally gets into open space,” Besler added. “He wasn’t allowed that the entire night. And instead of trying to take somebody on one-on-one he takes a touch and whips in a world-class ball.”
The mood around the team was mixed, with plenty of disappointment, but also with confidence born out of what was, in many ways, a strong performance against Portugal.
“You’re frustrated to not get the three points with five seconds left, 10 seconds left, but at the same time I think we showed a lot of character,” captain Clint Dempsey said. “We went a goal down and fought our way back into the game. I thought we played better than we played in the first game. We showed more quality, we were better in possession, created more chances, but at the same time we have four points out of two games and we’re happy with that.
“We’re still in a good position in the table and it’s about going into the last game and getting the job done.”
The job left for the Americans is to earn a result against Germany on Thursday. A tie secures a place in the round of 16 and a win would mean the U.S. team tops the Group of Death, thus securing an easier path in the knockout rounds.
If the Americans win Thursday, then Portugal’s late equalizer will have ultimately meant nothing, but until then the U.S. team will spend at least some time thinking about the win that got away, and the lost opportunity to cap a strong night with three precious World Cup points.
“Football’s cruel sometimes,” Howard said. “It ebbs and flows. we try and take every result as it comes. we’ll try to give ourselves 12 hours or so to ponder the result, but tomorrow will be a new day. We’ll get some sleep and our training sessions have been light and lively. We’ve got a great chance, in the group of death they say, of going through and we’re excited.”