World Cup Diary: It Hurts Because It Mattered

Photo: Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

The night was ripe for the taking — another beautiful June night for America. The oppressive conditions had been overcome, as had a horrifying opening 10 minutes that saw the U.S. Men’s National Team outclassed in every sense. A stroke of sheer brilliance by Jermaine Jones showed the world the quality within this squad, and the captain — bruised, exhausted, playing out of position — had appeared to seize a most improbable victory.

The United States came within a few seconds of knocking Cristiano Ronaldo out of the World Cup. And then Ronaldo decided it wasn’t going to happen, broke down the right and delivered the most perfect cross imaginable for Silvestre Varela. A retreating, disorganized U.S. defense was caught ball-watching. 2-2. On the last kick of the game.

Like many, I tend to drift toward rationalization in the wake of soul-crushing swerves like the one served tonight. So I’ll again note that, for the first 10 minutes of this contest, it looked like things could have quickly gotten out of hand for the U.S. While Portugal sprang out of the gates, grabbing hold of possession and refusing to give it back, the U.S. dropped deep and appeared happy to let them dictate the proceedings — looking very much a team hoping to conserve its energy for a long night ahead. With all due respect to our domestic league, they looked an overmatched MLS side thrust abruptly into Champions League competition.

The self-destruct button was pushed, as Ian Darke put it, with the shambolic defending that led to Nani’s opener. Portugal continued to assert its dominance in the opening quarter-hour, with Miguel Veloso and Joao Moutinho running the show from the center of the park. By the time halftime rolled around, Veloso was stroking 100% from the field — having completed all 32 of his attempted passes. The U.S. seemed nonplussed about making life difficult for him, barely pressing even when Portugal’s midfield was comfortably operating within 40 yards of Tim Howard’s goal.

Don’t get me wrong; there were some signs of life in the first half. The team started pushing higher as soon as they fell behind, and that opened up some nice chances for Fabian Johnson down the right flank. Michael Bradley and Jones started combining well on the attack, liberated knowing they had Kyle Beckerman behind them and Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi (in for the injured Jozy Altidore) dutifully manning the wings. But then Nani’s rocket from outside the box ricocheted off the post to Eder, and the Braga striker’s chip would have made it 2-0 in the 45th minute but for a brilliant, off-balance save by Howard.

It was Paulo Bento’s decision to move Veloso to left-back in the second half, replacing Andre Almeida, that really allowed the U.S. to start getting a fair share of the action. The spine of this Portugal team remains unconvincing — particularly with Pepe suspended, even more so with Veloso moved to the periphery. Raul Meireles, while serviceable, is at least two years past his best, and the squad as a whole ranks as the second-oldest in the competition. It’s not a particularly athletic side, and even less so with the outlet that is Ronaldo hobbling on one-and-a-half legs. The conditions in Manaus really seemed to get to them past the hour mark — right around when Jones scored one of the greatest goals in U.S. soccer history.

This is when we should remind ourselves just how incredible it felt when Jones curled in that shot from around 25 yards out; when Dempsey chested it in from 3 yards to take the lead about 20 minutes later. The sheer joy of it all as the U.S. completed an incredible comeback against top-class, European opposition on the world stage. For all the talk of #IBelieveThatWeWillWin — and it should indeed be embraced as a never-say-die mantra to live by in supporting this team — I can’t honestly say I fancied our chances of winning this contest after the first half. And yet there we were, right until the very end, right until…

It was an interesting night for the reigning Best Player in the World (a distinction he will hold until it is rightfully claimed by Luis Suarez at the conclusion of this year). There was the dazzling display of skill that he put on in the 5th minute, which sent the opposition scrambling in retreat mere seconds before Nani’s opener. But it was a display put on with fresh legs; not long after the hour mark, Ronaldo found himself on the counter with the ball at his feet and acres of space ahead.

It is a situation he lives for — one he’s made an entire career on exploiting time and again. But on the breakaway, with only Matt Besler in front of him, he was unwilling to cut back across his left and rocket a shot past Howard to make it 2-0. Tonight, he was unable to do more than fire it behind the goal and into the seats. It was bizarre, and the only explanation can be the tender left knee that’s given him trouble since the end of a long, grueling club campaign.

And yet there he was, after nearly 95 minutes of play, again on the break but also the brink of elimination. This time, he had an entire bank of U.S. defenders in front of him, but no matter; like Jones’ equalizer, it was a ball of the highest caliber, and it found Varela streaking toward the center of the box. For Portugal, what should have sparked raucous celebration elicited little more than relief. They’ll now have four days to recover for another do-or-die against a physical Ghana side with everything to play for.

For the U.S., well, it left us with four points from two games and our destiny in our own hands. It hurts, and it should — what could have been a night for all-time, we’d now rather forget. But I hope it hurts; I hope it leaves millions across the nation sleepless and tortured tonight, left pacing their neighborhood streets deep in thought. Because that would mean they care — about this game, about this team, about this sport.

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