When the final whistle rang sharply and heartlessly through the muggy Brazilian night, the United States men’s national team lingered on the field. They didn’t seem to want to leave. To leave was to accept that the game was over, that they had really given away the lead in the final 30 seconds of extra-time. And that they now needed a result from their final game.
The throaty bands of USA fans who had come all this way, to the heart of the world’s largest rain forest, and watched their team get an apparent 81st-minute winner only to spoil it, hung around too. The stadium slowly emptied but the Americans on the field and in the stands were slow to depart, staring at the field, mouths agape, wondering what in the world had just happened.
Thirty seconds had separated them all, this valiant mass of red, white and blue, from escaping the group of death with a game to spare, with wins — call them upsets, if you must — over Ghana and Portugal in the books. But on the game’s very last play, as the sweltering heat and cloaking humidity had fairly well ground the contest to a halt, Portugal’s superstar Cristiano Ronaldo finally delivered. He lifted the ball to Silvestre Varela, whose ill-contested header made it 2-2 and undid Jermaine Jones’ scorching equalizer after an early Portuguese go-ahead goal, and undercut Clint Dempsey’s would-be winner, which he gamely bodied into goal.
Germany still awaits in Recife on Thursday. But instead of traveling there safe in the knowledge that progress to the Round of 16 — the stated American objective in this tournament — was secure, math will play as big a part in the match as goals.
With a win, the Americans win the group and likely avoid Belgium in the Round of 16. With a draw, Germany wins the group and the USA progresses as runners-up. A loss makes things tricky. The concurrent Group G game, between Ghana and Portugal would either have to end in a tie for the Americans to advance, or be won without the goal difference with the USA being made up by the victor. Ghana is currently two goals worse off than the USA and Portugal five.