One of the things that confuses many American sports fans about soccer is the possibility of a game ending in a draw. The cliché response to a tie is that it’s “like kissing your sister,” which is one of the more bizarre sayings in the American lexicon given that kissing a sibling is much, much worse than tying a match.
So it was only fitting that one the most impressive performances in U.S. soccer history ended in a draw. It was as if the Soccer Gods were saying, “you need us to hand you one of the most exciting draws ever in order to appreciate them.”
After a poor match against Ghana that saw the U.S. hold on for dear life for the majority of the match, the Americans utterly dominated the mighty Portuguese (semi-finalists in Euro 2012). If the U.S. learned how to compete in the match against the Black Stars, in this one it learned how to take the initiative against a “big” team.
The U.S. has gotten good results against big teams in the past—Spain in 2009, Italy in 2006, Portugal in 2002—but rarely has an American team dominated a big team. Remarkably, the U.S. took the ascendancy after gifting the Portuguese a goal when Geoff Cameron muffed a clearance and then some very soft goalkeeping from Tim Howard allowed Nani to score in the fifth minute. The Americans showed impressive mental fortitude to immediately put the goal behind them and begin implementing their game plan.
Portugal was without starting left-back Fabio Coentrao, replaced by Andre Almeida, who is really more of a midfielder and is actually right-footed. Coentrao is an absolutely key player for the team because, despite being a technically limited player, he is more than capable of covering the space left by Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays a freer role from the left side. Jurgen Klinsmann clearly sought to attack Almeida by unleashing Fabian Johnson on the right flank, and the plan worked to perfection. Johnson combined well all game with Graham Zusi, and time and again caused major problems for Portugal. Johnson played the game of his life. So much so that Portuguese manager Paulo Bento was forced to take off Almeida and move Miguel Veloso, who is a central midfielder, over to left back to try and stop German-American right-back.
After Jermaine Jones scored his stunning equalizer, the “normal” narrative would have been that the superior technical ability of the Portuguese side, with experienced top level midfielders like Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles, and of course Cristiano up front would assert itself onto the match again. But that wasn’t the case, as it was the United States which seemed more likely to score.
Klinsmann doubled down on the right flank and brought on DeAndre Yedlin, really a natural right-back, to play on the right wing in front of Johnson. Klinsmann wanted to attack the much slower Veloso with pace, and Yedlin is one of the fastest players on the U.S. roster. The plan worked yet again, as Dempsey’s go-ahead goal came after Yedlin managed to get in behind the defense down the right and put in a dangerous cross which the Portuguese defenders totally mishandled. It was a deserved prize after being the better team on the field.
What happened next was like watching a great movie with a confusing and unsatisfying ending that is supposed to make you “think about it.” The one player who will be thinking most is Michael Bradley, who once again floundered on the biggest stage. Earlier in the game he missed an open-net goal, the kind of goal the U.S. simply cannot afford to miss, and with 15 seconds left he gave the ball away naively in the middle of the field. Nani played the ball out to Cristiano, who received it comfortably and was given time to survey his surroundings and deliver an astonishing cross to the onrushing Silvestre Varela to bury home the header.
It was an absolutely devastating way to end a truly heroic performance from Team USA. Soccer is a sport decided individual moments, as goals are so few and hard to come by. When you play against players of the caliber of Cristiano Ronaldo, who even when he’s clearly injured and playing poorly, is capable of a moment of individual brilliance, you have to maintain your concentration at all times. The one time that the Americans left him out of their sight, he punished them.
That said, we witnessed a historic performance from the USA. Before the tournament no one could’ve predicted this match—that it would be the U.S. that would dominate a team with clearly superior players. It’s the kind of performance the United States has never really produced in the past. Let’s savor it rather than wallow in the heartbreak of conceding an equalizer in the 95th minute.