I had to work until 8pm on Sunday. It was a terrible oversight on my part, the result of planning six months ahead, and requiring me to miss out on watching the USMNT take on Portugal in real time. Aside from Nani’s 5th minute goal, following an absolutely calamitous attempted clearance by Geoff Cameron, I avoided spoilers. I listened to nothing on the hour-long drive home and turned my phone off, lest someone assume I hadn’t made the terrible decision of trying to remain gainfully employed rather than watch a soccer game.
As I approached my neighborhood, I realized that even without the radio or texts or social media, there was still one way that might find out the result before I got home and fired up the DVR. People: honest-to-God human beings, pouring out of bars and walking along the street in USMNT jerseys and American flag shorts, wearing soccer-ball hats and painted faces. Driving down South Street, I craned my neck out the window to look at them, to read their expressions, to deduce from their eyes and the corners of their mouths, how the team had done. All the work I’d put in to avoid hearing about the game went out the window when I saw them. They knew how the US had done. I looked at them and scrutinized them. Not happy faces. Not jubilant. There was no laughing and no cheering. Just blank expressions, as if they had tried on every manner of face and exhaustion was all that was left. Oh dear, I thought, this is not going to be a fun experience.
It was in this context that i sat down to watch. And I could not have been more wrong. This may have been the best 90 minutes of US soccer I’ve watched. The 2009 Confederations Cup win over Spain might have been more fun, taking down, as it did, the reigning European Champions. The 2002 match against Portugal in South Korea was more surprising, like a newborn able to speak in complete sentences. Indeed, let’s just say that the whole 2002 World Cup was something on the edge of disbelief. Those US games were less like watching your team win than wondering how a camel learned to sew an evening gown, but there it is on the red carpet all the same. The draw against Italy in 2006 was more an occasion to embrace American toughness and yell at Italian treachery (aided by an incompetent referee), and thus more “memorable” than “good.” Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria in 2010 may be the finest moment that American soccer has produced, but the rest of the match was not exactly the kind you show to folks who don’t know or like the sport. The preceding match against Slovenia, though? That was a great one to watch with folks who didn’t know the game very well, but was entirely frustrating to those who did. Any time we’ve beaten Mexico in a tournament or qualifying belongs on a list of great performances, but, honestly, we’re doing that more frequently now, so such victories have lost some of their shine.*
No, Sunday’s game against Portugal was simply one of the first times that it didn’t seem like the US was relying on grit and tenacity, fitness and physicality, to outlast a drastically more talented European power, but simply playing with and even outplaying a world class team with world class players. Granted, Portugal were missing two defenders, had their third choice striker on after fifteen minutes, and Cristiano Ronaldo was nowhere near full fitness, but we didn’t have Jozy, Clint Dempsey (PBUH) was certainly still ailing, and Matt Besler was also struggling with injury. You don’t necessarily get your best eleven at their peak in any given game, but you deal with what you have available.
On that score, Klinsmann and the Americans did great work. Fullback Fabian Johnson was actually more of a second striker than anyone in the midfield according to his average position, playing quite wide but just off Dempsey’s shoulder vertically.** That wouldn’t have been possible without Jermaine Jones and Geoff Cameron being available to cover the spaces that Johnson had vacated, and actually doing so with aplomb. Jones especially has been a revelation in this tournament, now that he isn’t fighting with Kyle Beckerman for his spot, or with Michael Bradley for who’s allowed to go forward. Klinsmann has come to realize that playing all three of these midfielders gives the US the best chance at competing in both halves of the field, and well worth the risk of losing one. They play together as if they’ve been doing so for far longer than five matches and complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses well.
Aside from Cameron’s miscue, there was little the US did wrong in the first or second half, and Jones’ goal was a long time coming, even if the commentary in my living room in its run up went a little (exactly) like this: “nononononono Jermaine, please don’t shoot from that far ou —– OH SHIT NEVERMIND HOLY SHIT WOW.” The US still relies a little too much on long-range shots from the edge of the danger zone for my taste, but with Altidore out and playing five midfielders who aren’t the most incisive passer or inventive runners, those shots look to be their best chance for success, lest they simply pass the ball into the knees of a stacked defense.***
Equalizing meant that Portugal, who really needed a win, needed to press the attack even more, which in turn opened up more space for the US. There were some great moments for both side in the attack in the second half, as Ronaldo became much more involved for Portugal and the US continued to move quickly on the break when the Portuguese attack broke down. Both defenses continued to make mistakes and wore down a bit in the heat and humidity, and neither really covered itself in glory. Ricardo Costa probably had Portugal’s best defensive moment when he kneed Bradley shot off the line, but that was the result of very shaky defending from everyone else in red; Tim Howard’s heroics continue, but his one-legged save was the result of an uncharacteristic failure on the first shot.
The Dempsey goal resulted from those forces combining perfectly for the US. The tired Portuguese defense couldn’t get the ball out of their own danger area, the keeper was completely out of position, defenders were unused to playing together and thus unsure of their responsibilities. The US used their speed down the flanks and put four midfielders in the box to overwhelm the opposition numerically, giving Graham Zusi plenty of time and space to essentially place the ball in Dempsey’s stomach. End result: crotch goal. Glorious, glorious, crotch goal.
At this point, I started thinking about those faces I saw. I thought about what mine looked like, eyes the size of dinner plates and a grin from ear to ear, and it certainly didn’t match the emotionless and exhausted ones I’d seen on the street. “Oh dear,” I thought again, “These last ten minutes are not going to be a fun experience.” Graham Zusi sauntered off like his girlfriend had asked him to pick up tampons and chocolate added a minute to stoppage time. Michael Bradley (FOR THE SECOND FUCKING GAME IN A ROW JESUS GET IT TOGETHER MICHAEL) gave up possession willingly and in a dangerous area in that extra minute. And Cristiano Ronaldo, for one beautiful, sublime and shining moment, played like the best (or at least third-best) player in the world, running at a stretched American defense, playing a rifled and perfectly placed cross such that Silvestre Varela needed to do nothing but continue to exist in that moment and inhabit a physical body subject to the laws of physics, to conjure a goal and rescue their hopes. Whistle. End of match.
I leapt up at the whistle. I had expected another Portugal goal that would not come. I thought those faces were the result of resignation and defeat, but they were truly just exhausted and deflation. The high of potentially winning the group, and having maximum points after two matches, crashed hard around them, and they wore it around after. But a draw! I still smiled and beamed. A draw means we’re tied top of the group, and the most likely results on Thursday are a draw with Germany or narrow German victory coupled with a slender Portuguese win, any of which see us through to the knockouts. Why aren’t people celebrating? Why aren’t they happy? Why were their faces fixed with gloom?
And, of course, it was because they hadn’t had the benefit of seeing their own faces. I can’t imagine how crushed I would have been by that 94′ minute if I hadn’t already expected it to come. I cannot fathom the words I’d have for Zusi and Bradley and Ronaldo and the referee and the third official who added the time. In the 81st minute, it was a glorious crotch goal that promised to deliver the US another spectacular victory against Portugal. In the 94th minute, it was a kick in the balls.
NOON: Netherlands and Chile play what could be more exciting than you’d imagine as the winner of this game actually manages to avoid Brazil in the next round. Look for two of the most exciting teams in a tournament surprisingly stocked with them to play for all three points, committing to attack and not settling for a draw. If you would rather keep tabs on whether or not Spain will have the worst ever run for a defending World Cup champion, see if they can get anything off of Australia. A win would save them from ignominy and a draw would probably see them mentioned in the same breath as France 02 and Italy 10.
4:00 Brazil are through and Cameroon are eliminated, so there’s not much in that, though even at half speed there may be some remarkable moments from the host team. Croatia need to beat Mexico to get through, while El Tri can survive a draw. Mexico sitting back and absorbing the Croatian attack might not sound like a lot of fun, but they are also a team that breaks quickly on the counter, so there could be some goals in this one and at least the result will matter.
*SICK MEXICO BURN
** You can find that info here, as well as a ton of other stuff. I really suggest checking out all the different things on that page.
*** Remember the other day when I was talking about advanced metrics in soccer? Good. Here’s a primer on the relationship between shot location and goal scoring. You will not be surprised to learn that the closer and more directly in front of the goal the shot comes from, the more likely it is to go in. I know. Crazy.