In four words, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard summed up a game full of deflation, euphoria and shock. A game that was lost, then tied, then won, then tied, which in the end seemed more like a loss, if that makes any sense.
His four words made sense of the senseless. "Football is cruel sometimes," he said. After 90 minutes, the USA was headed to the knockout round of the World Cup. Then in an eye blink it was over. Safe passage was denied -- or perhaps delayed.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has lived in California for 20 years, summed it up thusly: "It was a bummer."
In the final seconds, Cristiano Ronaldo swung in a pretty cross from the right flank and Varela headed the ball into the net to keep Portugal's fading Cup chances alive with a 2-2 draw.
If the USA beats or ties Germany on Thursday, the Americans will advance. If the USA loses the game, the Americans would have to rely on goal differential to advance. Portugal plays Ghana on Thursday, and the USA has a plus 1 goal differential, ahead of Ghana (minus 1) and Portugal (minus 4). The USA also would advance if Ghana and Portugal tie.
It didn't take long before the conspiracy theorists took hold of the scenario and made assumptions. Would there be a gentlemen's agreement? Would German coach Joachim Low call his friend Klinsmann and settle on a tie, which would send both teams through? Would the fix be in?
Klinsmann brushed off the suggestions, which questioned his integrity. "There is no such call," he said. "Jogi will do his job, and I will do my job. This is no time to have friendship calls. It's about business now."
Pressed further, he said, that is not the American way, citing the U.S. team's play to the final whistle in a World Cup qualifying victory against Panama that kept archenemy Mexico's World Cup hopes alive.
The ties between the U.S. and German teams are deep. Thursday's game might as well be held in the Bundesliga. Klinsmann is one of the best strikers in Germany history. His former coach, Berti Vogts, is a special adviser to the U.S. team, hired as a super scout of sorts to help prepare the Americans for the opening round. And Low was an assistant when Klinsmann coached Germany in the 2006 World Cup.
As the U.S. team returns to its training base in Sao Paulo, the emotional recovery might be more difficult than the physical one, though Klinsmann and Howard downplayed that.
"I think we had one foot in the door. It's a small bit of disappointment, but realistically we wanted to give ourselves every chance to advance," Howard said, adding this is about where the USA had hoped it would be heading into its final group stage game.
The Americans had been down 1-0 for 59 minutes, after Nani scored following Geoff Cameron's epic whiff on a clearance attempt. Howard had proved himself time after time, especially with his outstretched left arm saving a sure goal on a rebound.
The Americans had much of the momentum, and the fan support, but couldn't connect until Jermaine Jones took matters into his own hands. In the 64th minute, it appeared Jones was tired of all the U.S. team's dilly-dallying, the just-miss rocket shots on goal.
With a nifty step around Nani, he crushed a right-footed shot. Clint Dempsey ducked, then cheered. Jones let out a roar. He had taken the game back for the Americans.
The goal that lifted the USA's spirits was about as pretty as a shiner below Dempsey's right eye, but it didn't matter. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
In the 81st minute, on a pinball series of plays, from Michael Bradley to Graham Zusi, Dempsey found himself in front of the net. Then, with his right hip, he pushed the ball into the goal. It was awkward, but it didn't matter. The entire U.S. team enveloped him as a scrum formed on the sideline. Dempsey had saved the day with his second goal in the tournament.
But the euphoria was short-lived. A win became a tie in the final seconds.
Football is cruel sometimes.
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