MANAUS, Brazil — The World Cup’s so-called Group of Death will come down to a final dizzying day, and if the first two U.S. matches are any indication of what lies in store, the four-team tussle for two places in the knockout stage probably will be decided on the last touch of the ball.
The Americans were cast in another riveting 90 minutes of soccer theater Sunday at sweltering Arena Amazonia, rallying from an early deficit to carry the lead into the waning moments. But they conceded a goal in the final seconds of the fifth and final minute of stoppage time and settled for a 2-2 draw with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, denting but not crushing their fortunes.
“We are disappointed because we could all taste it — we could taste the second round,” defender Matt Besler said.
Had they held on, the Americans would have secured passage and faced Germany in Thursday’s finale with only seeding at stake.
Now it will come down to this: the United States (four points) against Germany (four) in Recife and Portugal (one) vs. Ghana (one) in Brasilia. They will play simultaneously, starting at noon ET. Two teams will advance.
With a victory, the Americans would clinch first place and avoid Belgium in the round of 16. A draw would send both them and Germany into the next stage. They can advance with a loss if Ghana and Portugal tie or the winner of that match does not overcome the first tiebreaker, goal difference. (Ghana is a greater threat to overtake the United States in that fashion.)
“We had one foot in the door, so there’s a small bit of disappointment,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Realistically, we give ourselves every chance to advance, so we’re optimistic. We are pretty much right where we wanted to be when we started this whole process.”
True, but when the final whistle sounded, it felt more like a loss than a tie. The Americans had gone ahead on goals by Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey 17 minutes apart, then repelled every foray until Portugal’s last-gasp effort.
But six days after the United States beat Ghana with a late goal, Michael Bradley lost possession in the U.S. attacking end. Portugal pushed the ball wide to Ronaldo. To that point, the world player of the year had had a pedestrian game. But with his team facing elimination, he served a wonderful cross that met Varela for a diving header past Howard.
“There is disappointment, but we put ourselves in a good spot” in the tournament, midfielder Graham Zusi said. “We have done well so far. And now destiny is in our hands.”
U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann knocked down suggestions his team and the Germans would conspire for a draw. Klinsmann is, after all, a former German superstar and coach with strong personal and professional ties to counterpart Joachim Loew, Klinsmann’s assistant with Germany’s 2006 World Cup squad.
“Both teams want to win the group,” Klinsmann said. Loew “is doing his job. We’re good friends. And I do my job. . . . There is no time right now for friendship calls. It’s about business now.”
Bradley echoed those sentiments, saying, “When you look at this team, what we have been about, we play to win. This is a group that competes and is looking to represent themselves and the country in the best possible way.”
Last fall, having already clinched a World Cup berth, the United States had no incentive against Panama in the last qualifier. And a Panama victory would have eliminated Mexico, the U.S. team’s arch nemesis. The Americans scored twice late to win, 3-2.
“It’s not the way the U.S. team plays,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said in response to suggestions of a pregame agreement with Germany. “We’re not going to do that.”
Klinsmann’s focus is getting his team to rebound from an emotionally and physically taxing match against Portugal.
The Americans fell behind in the fifth minute when Geoff Cameron butchered a clearing attempt, allowing Nani to score from close range.
They began to gain traction, however, keyed by Dempsey and Fabian Johnson, a darting and overlapping right back.
The humidity began to take a toll, slowing the pace and prompting Argentine referee Nestor Pitana to stop play for a water break — a rarity in international soccer.
The U.S. team was almost victimized by another miscue. Howard failed to stop Nani’s routine shot, but the ball struck the right post. He made amends on the rebound, stretching with his trailing hand to tip way Eder’s bid.
Bradley should have tied it in the 56th minute, but with goalkeeper Beto pulled out of position by Johnson, the U.S. veteran’s seven-yard shot was cleared off the goal line by Ricardo Costa.
Jones found the target in the 64th with a rasping drive from 30 yards. The ball spun and curved and streaked toward the far right side. With no chance, Beto remained rooted in place. He turned his head to watch. The only question was whether Jones had bent it beyond the upright. He had not.
The Americans went ahead on Dempsey’s second goal of the tournament. DeAndre Yedlin crossed for Bradley in the center of the penalty area. Bradley’s shot was deflected to Zusi, who crossed to Dempsey. Kept onside by the fallen Bruno Alves, he nudged the ball into the net with his midsection.
Portugal, however, had a late answer.
“It’s unfortunate, but it was an amazing game,” Klinsmann said. “We just have to go the tougher way and get a result against Germany.”
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