As World Cup journeys go, the U.S. has gone from the driver’s seat to having to ask for help in getting a ride home.
That’s how big Portugal’s goal in the closing seconds of stoppage time looms for the U.S., which had to settle for a 2-2 draw in Brazil’s steamy rain forest.
With a win, the U.S. would have jumped into first place in its four-game group and guaranteed itself passage to the second round. Now it can’t get by without a little help from its friends.
PHOTOS: U.S. 2, Portugal 2
And the possibilities are nearly endless.
If the U.S. beats Germany, the No. 2 team in the world, in the final group-play game Thursday, the Americans go through to the knockout stage no matter what happens in the other group-play game between Portugal and Ghana game. The same thing happens if both games end in ties.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. If the U.S. loses and Ghana beats Portugal by more than one goal, then Ghana eliminates the U.S. – again – and the Americans go home.
And it all happened in an instant. With just second left in the five minutes awarded for second-half stoppage, Michael Bradley was stripped at the center circle and Portugal was off for one final rush. Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year who had been kept under wraps all night, suddenly found space up the right side, then bent a picture-perfect cross into the box.
There it found the head of a diving Varela, who had gotten behind central defender Geoff Cameron. Before the U.S. could pick the ball out of the net and dash back to the center circle, the game had been whistled over.
That’s an abrupt U turn for a team that, 15 minutes earlier, appeared to have made history with Clint Dempsey’s goal in the 81st minute. The U.S. has never qualified for the knockout round of a World Cup in its second group-play game.
Nani put Portugal up, 1-0, in the fifth minute – although he had a lot of help from Cameron, who got a foot but nothing else on a Miguel Veloso ball into the area. His weak clearance attempt bounced directly to a wide-open Nani near the right post and with time he waited for U.S. keeper Tim Howard to slip to the turf before the lifted the ball over him into the net.
The sequence marked the first time the ball went into the U.S. box and the back line was hardly up to the challenge, with DeMarcus Beasley compounding Cameron’s error by losing track of Nani. It also left the U.S. on the wrong side of history since Portugal had never lost in the 11 World Cup games in which it has led.
Portugal nearly doubled that lead in the dying moments of the first half, with only the goalpost and remarkable one-handed save by Howard keeping it a one-goal game.
First Howard appeared to lose sight of a knuckeball from Nani, which the keeper punched off the crossbar. But the ball ricocheted out to Eder at the edge of the penalty area and with Howard scrambling to his feet and cheating toward the center of the goal, Eder shot behind him.
But Howard was able to reach back and get enough of his left hand on the ball to deflect it over the net. That proved huge when Jermaine Jones scored the equalizer for the U.S. midway into the second half.
After a corner kick sailed harmlessly across the front of the goal, Jones gathered the loose ball near the far side of the area, dribbled toward to center to escape the marking of Nani, then blasted a right-footed rocket from about 20 yards that bent into the net just inside the far post.
Dempsey then put the U.S. in front for the first time all night when a Graham Zusi pass through traffic struck Dempsey in the midsection and bounced into the goal.
The U.S. had promised to keep a close eye on Ronaldo, and for most of the night they did, making him a nonfactor until the closing seconds.