30 seconds. A half a minute. A single ball cleared into the corner, far enough from Tim Howard as to make the idea of an equalizing goal as close to impossible as anything in sports can be.
That is how close the United States Men’s National Team was from securing a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Portugal on Sunday night.
A cracking Jermaine Jones strike and a beautiful team goal — DeAndre Yedlin to Michael Bradley to Graham Zusi to, finally, Clint Dempsey — had erased an early mistake that put the Portuguese ahead, and the United States was mere seconds from becoming, somewhat improbably, the first team to advance out of what many have called the World Cup’s Group of Death.
Then it all came crashing down. Instead of booting the ball halfway back to the States, Bradley misplayed it in the midfield and accidentally launched a Portugal counter. The ball found Cristiano Ronaldo, who hadn’t been good all night but is still the last person in the world any defender wants to see in that situation, and he delivered a perfect cross that found the head of Silvestre Varela before it hit the back of the net.
It wasn’t a loss. But it sure felt like one.
For 87 of the 95 minutes played last night, the United States was largely the better team. Jones and Dempsey scored, yes, but the U.S. had plenty of other chances too — Bradley had a golden opportunity denied and Dempsey narrowly missed a lacing free kick, to name two — and it was the Americans who spent most of the match on their front foot, possessing the ball and attacking a Portuguese defense that had lost one player to injury and another to suspension. It was as sound as the U.S. has looked against top flight competition in a long time on a day when that is exactly what the Yanks had to be.
The U.S. would have taken these two results — 4 points through two matches — at the outset of this tournament, and it might have settled for this draw when Portugal took a lead just seven minutes into the match. That all of that is true doesn’t change anything about last night: the Americans were mere seconds from securing advancement to the round of 16 without having to gain anything from their final group match against Germany, so when Varela’s goal found the net 94:39 into the night, it was easy to feel that all of this was for naught.
And yet, for as devastating as it felt — and still feels — the United States has plenty of hope left.
Some 72 hours from now, the U.S. will meet Germany in Recife needing only a draw to secure a place in the next round. Thanks to their own 2-2 draw against Ghana, Die Mannschaft hasn’t won its spot in the knockout stage either, but they only need a draw to win first place in the group and advance too. This is hardly the best case scenario, given that 14 hours ago it looked like the U.S. was about to slot itself into the round of 16, but it was just about the best Americans could have hoped for before this tournament began, when the clearest path out of this group was to beat Ghana, draw Portugal, and then hope for either a point against Germany or some luck in the other match.
Even better news for the Americans is that there are still more paths out of this group than there are out of the tournament. A draw between Portugal and Ghana would send the U.S. through no matter what happens against Germany, as would any number of other results, as this chart from Deadspin’s Billy Haisley shows (shortest answer: root for a tie or a narrow Portuguese victory).
And then there is this team. Had anyone told American fans that Jozy Altidore would miss most of the World Cup due to injury, that Michael Bradley wouldn’t play his best, that Clint Dempsey would suffer a broken nose and that Matt Besler would injure himself too, the reaction would have teetered largely between “we’re doomed” and “why even board the plane?” Instead, the U.S. has gotten brilliant contributions from enigmatic midfielder Jermaine Jones, long-time national team afterthought Kyle Beckerman, and young defender Fabian Johnson. Dempsey and Howard have been their typical selves. Bradley, final mistake aside, was mostly back to being Michael Bradley last night. And manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who drew criticism for his roster selections before the tournament began, has pressed the right buttons, primarily in tapping two players only he thought should even make the trip to Brazil.
I’m talking, of course, about John Anthony Brooks, the 21-year-old defender who looked lost at times while playing for the U.S. before this World Cup but made his entrance by scoring the iconic game-winner against Ghana, and DeAndre Yedlin, the 20-year-old Seattle Sounders right back who came into the midfield last night and made the run that set up Dempsey’s go-ahead goal. Neither Brooks nor Yedlin were expected to contribute to this team, and yet they have combined to score or set up half of the four American goals.
All of that has added up to a backs-against-the-wall victory over Ghana, then a match in which the Americans went toe-to-toe with a team ranked in the world’s top five, and a feeling that no matter what, this American team is going to find a way to do what it needs to do to advance farther into the tournament.
Last night hurt. It still hurts. But with one more solid performance the USMNT can make it so that the story of that Portugal match will end up being the decisive point the Americans were able to grab, not the two points they somehow let slip away.