Clint Dempsey (8) of the U.S. celebrates scoring their second goal during their 2014 World Cup G soccer match against Portugal at the Amazonia arena in Manaus, June 22, 2014. REUTERS/Andres Stapff (BRAZIL – Tags: SOCCER SPORT WORLD CUP)

Late-Game Villainies

It’s tempting to blame one moment of genius from Cristiano Ronaldo in the 95th minute of Sunday’s USA-Portugal match for causing millions of American fans to throw up in their mouths. Of course, the state of Ronaldo’s head had some viewers queasy before kick-off, as he looked to have narrowly escaped the clutches of a left-handed Zorro and irresponsible eyebrow waxer. But more proximate blame may reasonably fall upon the American with the most dramatic follicular styling, Michael Bradley.

With fewer than 30 seconds left to tick America into the knock-out stages of the World Cup, Bradley’s accuracy deserted him. Earlier in the game, he had unerringly picked out the only sliver of Portuguese leg in their yawning goalmouth that could repulse a U.S. goal. But with the game on the line, he found himself unable to roll the ball to any available non-Iberian. Or to wallop the filthy orb into Row Z of whatever Estadio Elefante Branco they were playing in. Or even to pick it up, dunk it over the goal post, and earn himself a yellow card and concussion examination. Any of those options would have preserved an American victory.

Instead, for the second time in as many games, Bradley turned the ball over to the opposition in the dying seconds of a tight game. The Ghanaians were too polite to punish him, but Cristiano had those aesthetic atrocities to avenge and refused to let America hoard all three points from a win.

Mid-Game Heroics

But America played well, tremendously well, particularly in light of their horror start and the appalling heat. In just the fifth minute, Geoff Cameron’s left foot fell under the rolling wheel of fate. After he had held back the Ghanaian tides for the entire previous game, Cameron skewed his first clearance against Portugal like a nervous duffer on the first tee. Nani was simply the closest of a long queue of opponents on hand to score.

From that early deficit, the US resolutely reconstructed their defense. Then gradually, they moved forward to test the Portuguese. In the 64th minute, Jermaine Jones leveled the match by belting a scorcher — almost a mirror image of Messi’s game winner against Iran the day before — past the admiring Portuguese goalie. America yet again absorbed Portuguese pressure before Dempsey bellied America into the lead in the 81st minute.

Although the Portuguese leveler at the death was a little sickening, many Americans would have taken a draw before kick-off and begged for one five minutes later.

Facing the Germans in ’14

In just two games, our national team has demonstrated the joys of scoring goals in the opening and closing seconds of a match, and the torment of conceding them thusly. So rather than surfing six points into the next round of the tournament and treating the final group game as a training exercise, America now gets the Mannschaft with something on the line. If Jürgen can convince his compatriots to lay down their cleats for a centennial Stille Nacht sing-along, then all will be well. But the Germans may not have liked how the first one turned out, and a team of their benchwarmers fighting for places aboard their juggernaut will be fearsome. After all those early and late goals, America would now be best served by a game with no goals at all.

Third-Game Permutations

What are the possible outcomes? If America ekes out a win or a draw against Germany, they will go through. If America loses, the U.S. fate will turn on the outcome of the Ghana-Portugal match. Accursed FIFA has scheduled each group’s two final matches concurrently on Thursday, so the U.S. will not have the luxury of adjusting their tactics to the outcome of the other match. But the best result would be for Ghana and Portugal to tie, which would also send the U.S. through.

But a U.S. loss coupled with a win by either Portugal or Ghana will force us to engage in some statutory interpretation of the current group standings and the tiebreaking rules, Article 41 of the Regulations of the 2014 World Cup:

5. The ranking of each team in each group shall be determined as follows:

a) greatest number of points obtained in all group matches;

b) goal difference in all group matches;

c) greatest number of goals scored in all group matches.

If two or more teams are equal on the basis of the above three criteria, their rankings shall be determined as follows:

d) greatest number of points obtained in the group matches between the teams concerned;

e) goal difference resulting from the group matches between the teams concerned;

f) greater number of goals scored in all group matches between the teams concerned;

g) drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee.

So, if Ghana were to win, their win and the U.S. loss would jointly have to overcome a current 2-goal US advantage on goal difference in order to eliminate the U.S. If the US and Ghana were tied on goal difference (because, for example, Ghana beat Portugal 1-0 and the US lost to Germany 1-0), then they would be tied on (a), (b), and (c) above. Tiebreaker (d) is a convoluted way of saying that the US would advance because they beat Ghana head-to-head. (The rules are written for potentially three-way ties, but “between the teams concerned” in our example would be between only the US and Ghana.)

If instead Portugal were to win, their win and the U.S. loss would jointly have to overcome a 5-goal U.S. advantage on goal difference in order to eliminate the US. If the US and Portugal were tied on goal difference (because, for example, Portugal beat Ghana 4-0 and the U.S. lost to Germany 3-2), then they would be tied on (a), (b), and (c) above. Tiebreakers (d), (e), and (f) wouldn’t help because the US and Portugal tied each other.

And that would just leave the appalling tiebreaker (g): “drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee.”

For the great soccer-ambivalent masses in the United States, learning that the national team had been eliminated from the World Cup because of a game of rock-paper-scissors with Sepp Blatter would, in the learned prediction of a professorial friend of mine, make “their heads explode.” Tune in Thursday — lives may be at stake.