The game is cruel. No other sport played by the human race has the capacity to lift us up and bring us crashing back down in one moment.
After Portugal scored a late equalizer to delay the possible American progression to the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, one doesn't need to tell Geoff Cameron that. One certainly doesn't have to explain it to Michael Bradley.
Soccer doesn't care about the balance of play. Soccer doesn't care which team is the better one over 80 or 85 minutes. All it takes is a bad moment or two and the ebullience of victory is replaced by the agony of missed opportunity.
The U.S. national team is experiencing the agony of missed opportunity as it makes its way from Manaus back to the team's base in Sao Paulo ahead of its final Group G match against Germany on Thursday.
First, Geoff Cameron's mishit clearance in the fifth minute fell perfectly to Portuguese winger Nani, and the Manchester United man simply could not miss from 6 yards out. Then, after a spirited USA comeback built on a wonder goal from Jermaine Jones and a tally by Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley turned the ball over in the Portuguese end and the USA defense switched off for just enough time for Cristiano Ronaldo to play a perfect cross to Silvestre Varela. Goal, game tied, no time left for another American push forward.
Before the tournament, the USA and its fans would have been thrilled with four points through two matches. Before Sunday's match, many would have taken a draw and the knockout-round lifeline it would provide. The cruelty of the game means that what transpires once the ball is kicked can have seismic effects on what everyone involved is willing to accept.
Perhaps lost in the disappointment of the USA draw with Portugal is just how well the Americans played over the balance the match.
Without Jozy Altidore and forced to defend against the best player in the world, Jurgen Klinsmann's squad looked like the better team for much of the contest. Yes, the U.S. conceded chances, as it always does, but with the top-level goalkeeping of Tim Howard as a last resort, it could afford to give up an opportunity or two. More important for their chances to get a point or more out of the match against Germany in four days, the Americans built confidence that they can put the ball on the ground, use their speed on the flanks, get the ball to creative players, and play with an attacking menace.
In other words, what the USA showed against Portugal was the opposite of their performance against Ghana last week. The Americans won that game with desperate defending and a timely set piece. They drew this one with a much more positive approach. It's no coincidence that both games turned on an early goal, one for, one against. So much of the mentality of a team is dictated by the numbers on the scoreboard.
Once again, Jermaine Jones brought his best while wearing the red, white and blue of his nation. Where Bradley underwhelmed, and will be harshly criticized for his late giveaway, Jones impressed with his nonstop effort and heady play. His goal was superb and much-needed, but Jones was much more than that moment.
- Torre: Ronaldo neutalized until final moments
- McIntyre: Three Points on U.S. heartbreaker
- Carlisle: United States player grades
- Tactics: Fabian Johnson vs. Cristiano Ronaldo
- Group G qualifying scenarios
- Germany vs. United States, Thursday, noon ET, ESPN
Fabian Johnson too was excellent, a contender for the Man of the Match award that ultimately went to Howard. Across the field, Klinsmann got top games out of a host of his players: DaMarcus Beasley, solid enough defensively and key providing an extra man in the attack; Matt Besler, fighting though a hamstring issue and very rarely out of place in central defense; Graham Zusi, occasionally lax with his passing but crucial to defending the Portuguese counter and always dangerous offensively.
The negative is obvious, and potentially crushing: The United States did not close out a game it had every right to win. In the harshest terms, the Americans choked. Klinsmann and his team should rue the opportunity they missed, even while they curse the game they know so well for being so damnably cruel.
That doesn't mean there aren't clear positives to be taken away from the difficult environs of Arena Amazônia. Whatever doubt existed about the Americans' ability to play the game with the ball at their feet after they scraped by against Ghana evaporated in the sticky heat of Manaus. Whatever questions surrounded their prospects of coping without the target presence of Altidore did the same. Disappointment and a lift in confidence need not be mutually exclusive.
The USA moves forward toward Thursday and the match against Germany in Recife without their place in the knockout round booked. But they leave Manaus far from empty-handed, even forgetting the single point they surely know should have been three.
This game does not give you what you deserve. If gives you what you earn. For the Americans, what they earned on Sunday was more than most believed they could before the tournament started and, more important, gave them plenty of reason to believe they can escape the clutches of Group G.