Emotional finish for U.S. in Manaus
MANAUS, Brazil -- Look at Clint Dempsey now. Look at him, as he walks off this green field in the Amazon in the 87th minute, so few seconds away from history. Limping and black-eyed. Glowering and drenched. The portrait of an American hero who'd scored the game-winner just six minutes prior with what his countrymen had sworn was his groin.
You could hear another montage of celebratory bars and living rooms being edited. You could hear the Clint Dempsey meme generator being built. You could hear the chants loosening the shoulders of face-painted devotees -- "I believe that ... I believe that we ..." -- until the tension finally slackened and it all felt like a cool wind blowing through the concrete fever dream that is this building.
This is the hypnosis of the Arena de Amazonia, where dreams are offered, fully formed, and just as soon demolished. This is the sweltering, disgusting power of Manaus.
After beating England here in a 2-1 thriller last weekend, Italian midfielder Claudio Marchisio said that it got so hot during the game that everything began to seem like a hallucination. Sunday night, once Dempsey had staked his claim to the title of greatest soccer player in American history, and once that montage was literal seconds from reality, the alarm clock named Cristiano Ronaldo sounded, all too real.
"We had one foot in the door," goalkeeper Tim Howard would say.
Partial as it was, that entry was earned. For more than 90 minutes, the United States had executed a containment plan for the reigning best player in the world. Midfielders -- often Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman -- shadowed Ronaldo. They bodied him. They knocked the superstar down without punishment.
"We did a great job not allowing him to danger spots," center-back Matt Besler said. "We were making him feel us." Ronaldo, stubbornly wearing his customary long sleeves even in this humidity, operated arrhythmically, terrifying mostly by virtue of reputation.
But there he emerged, unbowed and undeniable, in the last gasps of stoppage time. Precisely when you thought it was safe to question the lightning bolt shaved into the side of his head.
Ronaldo curled a galaxy-class cross from the right side, daintily dropping it onto the oncoming head of winger Silvestre Varela for the 2-2 equalizer, sending Besler to his knees and both of Howard's hands to his head. It surprised the United States that Ronaldo did the thing he isn't world-famous for, especially when gifted with the opportunity to finally obliterate someone one on one: he passed. "It's a tough one to swallow," Besler said. "But that's why he's Cristiano."
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In the aftermath, the American players unified in an attempt to publicly minimize the terror of this draw. If you could build a word cloud out of all the sentences this team spoke, there would be something close to this full phrase, in 72-point font: "If somebody had told us that we were going to have four points after these two games I think we would take it."
And they will. But this is not one of those games that anyone who sweated inside this edifice can soon forget, even if this United States side exclusively plays World Cup thrillers. Even if it technically didn't lose.
"We always knew that it would be a game where we'd be tested to the absolute limit," midfielder Michael Bradley said afterward. "It was a heavy field."
"We could all taste it," Besler added, as a U.S. soccer media official waved a witch moth away from the player's head. "We could taste the second round."
Those moths. In certain cultures, these insects are said to be omens: of evil, in Jamaica; of prosperity, in the Bahamas; of death, in Mexico. In a Brazilian city already dripping with climatological intimidation, those moths primarily foretold collapse. They flew around Manaus all week, falling out of mid-air in stairwells, drawn by the lights of the arena and spiraling to the ground just as soon.
At times, it felt like human beings would follow. The first water break in World Cup history was taken Sunday night, in the 37th minute -- a necessary, welcome act of mercy. "Everyone was just losing a lot of fluids and trying to recharge," Beckerman said. By the time the whistle sounded for halftime, the players might as well have crawled off the pitch.
But none of that compared to the exhaustion at the end, as crickets sounded in the darkness outside the Arena de Amazonia. None of that compared to the torture of that image of Dempsey, and what might have been.
"These finishes are very emotional for all of us," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "We won't talk anymore about Portugal. That's now off the table."
At least until it returns to them in a dream.