Silvestre Varela scored with almost the final play of the match to keep Portugal’s World Cup hopes alive and cruelly deny the U.S. an early progression to the Round of 16 in Group G action.
Unlike against Ghana, when John Brooks’s header secured the USA a famous late win, this time it was they who were the victims. The U.S. had looked set for three points that would take them through the group stage with a match to spare after second-half goals from Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey cancelled out Nani’s early strike. But in the final minute of five added on, the previously anonymous and seemingly barely fit Cristiano Ronaldo picked the ball up on the right flank and supplied a cross befitting his status as the world’s best player to allow substitute Varela to dive and head past Tim Howard.
While the run of play made a U.S. win against Ghana perhaps a somewhat fortunate one, there could have been so such accusations leveled had they picked up the victory this time around. There was a disappointing slow start and an error from Geoff Cameron to allow Portugal, who, after an opening 4-0 defeat to Germany, needed to take something from this match to remain in contention to make the knockout phase, to take the lead. But the U.S. response was impressive. For much of the remainder of the first half it appeared a matter if when not if they would get an equalizer.
Jones finally provided it in the 64th minute with an unstoppable long-range strike. When Dempsey then bundled in from close range with nine minutes remaining, the win and progress looked theirs. Instead, the U.S. will now go into its final game with Germany on Thursday needing at a point to be sure of progress. Portugal will meet Ghana with both teams needing to win and hope there is a victor in the other game.
In contrast to their opening game, when Dempsey scored after 30 seconds, this was a more cautious, nervy start from the U.S. And Portugal took advantage. Miguel Veloso’s low cross from the left was a poor one, but Cameron took a wild swing at it with his left foot to see the ball skew off his boot and perfectly into the path of Nani at the back post. The Manchester United winger needed no second invitation to fire the ball into roof of the net from six yards.
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What followed was a performance of much encouragement. Without the injured Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey started alone up front, with the impressive Graham Zusi brought in out wide and extra numbers provided in midfield. It meant the U.S. had far more possession than against Ghana and there was enough early suggestion that they could do something with it.
It must be said, however, that much of that was down to their opponents. While the U.S. again supplied a real team performance, Portugal were for the second match in succession far less than the sum of its parts. Ronaldo, hampered by a knee injury since the end of the club season with Real Madrid, was a passenger -- like a boxer with one eye shut and legs like jelly trying to hit one desperate knockout blow. While contributing little with the ball, his contribution when his team were without possession was non-existent. It meant that the U.S. and in particular full-back and arguably man of the match, Fabian Johnson had repeated invitations to attack down Portugal’s left flank. With Portugal slow throughout the team to recover their positions in transition, it was perhaps disappointing that Jurgen Klinsmann’s side couldn’t pull level sooner.
They might have even been further behind before the interval. Howard was forced to repel a drive from Nani, but then two minutes later he made a hash of another strike from the unpredictable wide man and looked back in relief as the ball struck the post before quickly gathering his wits to tip over Eder’s follow-up.
Still, the U.S. came again after half-time. With 10 minutes gone in the second period they really should have been level. Johnson unsurprisingly got in behind down the right and from his perfect pull-back Bradley looked certain to find the net from six yards. Instead his shot found the thigh of Portugal defender Ricardo Costa on the line. The reaction to all in American colors was agonizing, but the frustration would not last for long.
Jones put in another tireless display in midfield and came up big to show that he is more than just a battler. Having taken a touch inside Nani, he unleashed a fearsome drive that bent away from Portugal goalkeeper Beto before nestling in the side of the Portuguese net. Again the team was unsatisfied with just a point, and continued to show ambition. Again they initially got their rewards. Substitute DeAndre Yedlin, just 20 years old, made a telling contribution on the big stage with a cross from the right, Bradley helped it onto Zusi, whose composed cross found a just onside Dempsey, who couldn’t miss.
Ronaldo, Varela and Portugal provided a late twist that leaves the U.S. bitterly disappointed. But thrown into an unenviable group from which few gave them a chance of progressing, Klinsmann will surely have taken four points his side’s opening two matches. Now all that remains is to complete the job when he goes up against his country of birth and the coach who assisted him at the 2006 World Cup, the former colleagues knowing that a point a piece takes both nations through.
But being denied two extra points is hard for the U.S. to overlook.
When asked by ESPN's Jeremy Schaap how long the stoppage time felt, Howard was quick to crack a smile.
"Too long," said Howard. "Thirty seconds too long."