It was a heart-breaking goal. Holding on to a 2-1 lead that would have seen the United States through to the second round of the World Cup, the Americans lost focus. Michael Bradley let himself be tackled by Portuguese striker Eder. Several midfielders did not track back at full speed while Portugal counter-attacked. DeMarcus Beasley, stranded one-on-one against Cristiano Ronaldo, managed to force him into a cross but did not provide any pressure to disrupt the pass. All three American center backs failed to track Silvestre Varela, the lone runner into the box. With an inch-perfect pass and a clean strike, Portugal equalized at the death.
Varela’s header was one of the few high-quality chances Portugal created. The United States had the better of the contest by chances created. Between Clint Dempsey’s chested goal and Michael Bradley’s shot blocked off the line, Team USA created both of the match’s best scoring opportunities. Still, Portugal created enough chances within the danger zone to keep it close.
Even if 2-2 is not a terribly unjust result, the manner of the equalizer still lingers for American fans. The effects of Varela’s shocking goal, however, are unlikely to be long-lasting. With a win in hand, the United States is likely to qualify out of Group G and make a footnote of this 95th minute trauma. In my projections the United States has dropped from 100 percent to qualify, if they had won, down only to 80 percent to qualify with the draw.
Because of the tie-breaker rules, this last-second goal was not worth very much to Portugal. If Portugal can beat Ghana and there is a winner in the United States—Germany match, that will leave Portugal and either the Americans or Germany tied on four points in second place in the group. This would go to tie-breakers, and the first tie-breaker is goal difference. The United States currently has a plus-1 goal difference, Germany plus-4, and Portugal minus-4. It would take not just a win, but a massive blowout win for Portugal to challenge for qualification.
Ghana’s path is somewhat easier as they have only a minus-1 goal difference. Still, if the United States loses 1-0 to Germany and Ghana beats Portugal 1-0, those results would leave the United States and Ghana even on both goal difference and on total goals, which is the second tie-breaker. That would take the decision to the third tie-breaker, head-to-head record. Team USA beat Ghana, so the United States would go through. Ghana needs not only to win its match, and not only for the United States to lose, but also Ghana must score two more goals than the Americans do. These are not impossible scenarios, but neither are they likely.
For a map of all possible scenarios, Asa Hopkins compiled a helpful chart.
The other problem for Ghana and Portugal, beyond goal difference, is that a draw takes Germany and the United States through together to the second round. A draw would give both the Germans and the Americans five points, while neither Portugal nor Ghana can possibly attain more than four points. This creates the possibility of a biscotto, a mutually favorable result which both teams conspire to create.
I do not mean to suggest that the two sides would actively collude, but perhaps collusion is not necessary to cook a result. A loss could be a disaster for the United States, while a draw is nearly as good as win. For Germany a loss opens the possibility of a terrible outcome, and a draw is exactly as good as a win. A good case can be made for tactics that are conservative to the point of near petrifaction. Both sides would be well-served to maintain strict defensive discipline and avoid conceding unnecessary chances. Such a combination of highly defensive tactics from both teams could practically guarantee a 0-0 draw without requiring any subterfuge from the coaches or players.
The United States would be in advantageous position to qualify even if the game schedule did not create additional reasons to expect a draw. With the possibility of a tacit agreement to draw added in to the mix, Team USA should be strong favorites to reach the round of 16.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.