Welp. They almost pulled it off. After fighting back from a slow start in which they conceded a goal, the USMNT took a 2-1 lead over Portugal after 81 minutes with a Clint Dempsey tap-in from Graham Zusi. They were about to Fucking Do It.
And then, in the fifth and final minute of injury time, midfielder Michael Bradley was dispossessed in the center of the park, and the world watched as a pack of Portuguese players rumbled toward the United States goal.
And... you could feel it, right? You knew. Nani dribbled through the middle, and superstar Cristiano Ronaldo flared out to the right, isolated against American left back DaMarcus Beasley. He received a pass, took a touch, looked up, and curled in the prettiest ball you'll ever see into the back post to a streaking Silvestre Varela, who headed it past Tim Howard for the tying goal.
No flags anywhere. No ref waving it off. And eeriest, no celebration from the Portuguese, who seemed just as surprised and confused and weirdly disappointed that after being lowered on the chopping block, just seconds away from being ousted from the tournament, they were allowed to simply get up and... walk away.
Americans all over the world groaned, collapsed, cried. Then we tried to work backward to the moment it all went wrong. Soccer is fluid, with few stoppages, and behind nearly every goal there are any number of things to blame—a player shading six inches the wrong way, a yard of pace, the random spin of the ball. Still, knowing this, it was hard to get past Bradley giving the ball away with 30 seconds left to play.
It's painful, because Bradley is the USMNT talisman, their best player, and for long stretches of the Portugal match, he was the best player on the pitch. Portugal were gifted their first goal after a poor Geoff Cameron clearance bounced straight to Nani, who gave keeper Tim Howard a little okie doke and roofed the ball into the net.
We were surely fucked, it appeared, until the United States midfield took over the match. Kyle Beckerman quietly frustrated the Portugal attack, tidily stepping into passing lanes then getting the ball out of his feet again before his opponents could converge. Jermaine Jones, probably, is on PCP, and has not so quietly been the Americans' best player. This culminated in the 64th minute when he equalized with a banger from over 20 yards out.
It was Bradley, though, who led the team in touches, who released our wingers down the sidelines, disrupted Portugal's nonexistent midfield, and was in the mix for Dempsey's go-ahead goal nine minutes from time. It was the best American midfield performance against quality competition... ever, maybe, and it was spearheaded by Bradley. So you have to feel for the guy, even though it was his lapse in concentration so close to the death that may have doomed the USMNT.
But when it comes to the goal itself, well, the only person we can point to is Cristiano Ronaldo. So often, we try to quantify the sport into so many Xs and Os, and often, even on this here site, we fall down rabbit holes talking tactics and analytics, because it makes the game easier to understand, and because it gives us a semblance of smug satisfaction, allowing us to believe that maybe, if someone just gave us a jersey—or, better yet, Jürgen's or Arsène's or Pep's job—we'd win everything there is to win.
What we discount here is that the World Cup is the biggest collection of superstars from all over the globe, and that these superstars are qualitatively and quantitatively different. The World Cup is won by superstars making plays no one else can, whether it's Neymar unleashing a left-footed strike to bring a sleepy Brazil level against Croatia, or Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie taking it upon themselves to demolish the defending champions of the world, or the alien genius of Pirlo, the greatest passer in the world, to merely step over a ball against England, or Luis Suárez stepping on England's throats, or Thomas Müller scoring a hat trick against Portugal, or Lionel Messi deciding in stoppage time that actually no, Iran, you're not picking up a cynical draw against Argentina.
Ronaldo, more than all these players named save one, is a superstar, who does the unreal at a very regular clip, and so after shanking countless shots away for 94 and a half minutes, the dude was due. He often plays on the left, where his role is to chiefly cut in and score, but there's no reason why he wouldn't be a devastating crosser of the ball when he's isolated on the right wing. And that's what happened. In one of the most important moments of Ronaldo's career, he put in possibly the most perfect cross he ever has or will, and there was nothing any of the seven Americans behind the ball or Howard could do.
Still—they didn't even lose! The unrealistic-seeming master plan for the Americans to escape what is now without question the Group of Death was to beat Ghana in the first match, draw Portugal in the second, and maybe get something off Germany's second string in the second. Four points after two matches, sitting in second place in Group G, is, on paper, a dream.
And yet, even though the USMNT did everything they needed to do, qualification for the knockout stage is in doubt. Germany, who possess the most talented roster of all the World Cup entrants, were supposed to have already qualified by the third match against the USMNT on Thursday. But because of their shock draw against Ghana in the best match of the tournament, they now sit atop Group G, level on points with the United States. Ghana and Portugal, who play on Thursday, both have one point; the winner of the match could back into the Round of 16 by knocking out the loser of US-Germany.
If the two draw, both advance, but it's likely that Germany will not want to take chances, or rest any of their superstars. The odds are in the USMNT's favor, but they aren't overwhelming, and if they want to be sure of moving on, the boys will have to muster up one more incredible display, against a team that beat Portugal 4-0 in the opener, and may well be the best in the world, right now.
So... fuck it. Let's just beat them, too.
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