Why good outweighs the bad for USA in heartbreaking Portugal draw

The USA gave up the latest non-overtime goal in World Cup history to draw with Portugal, 2-2, Sunday night. But it played with composure looked dangerous.

Themba Hadebe/AP
United States goalkeeper Tim Howard (r.) and defender Matt Besler (l.) react after Portugal's Silvestre Varela scored in the 95th minute of the World Cup soccer match in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday.

This World Cup's headlong determination to prove that soccer, at its best, is anything but boring just blew up in America's face.

For a nation just on the cusp of embracing its inner soccer fan, the 2014 World Cup has come gift-wrapped. Goals in abundance. Reigning champions routed. And, yes, comebacks.

Now, the USA has gotten a taste of what that feels like from both sides.

The typical reaction to games like the one the United States played Sunday night is to assess blame. After all, when you are 28 seconds from beating the world's No. 4-ranked team, from winning two World Cup games in a row for the first time since 1930, from advancing to the second round out of what some people call the "Group of Death," there are bound to be questions when you fail.

Was Michael Bradley to blame for losing possession in a dangerous area of midfield, allowing the Portuguese to break with speed? Was Geoff Cameron to blame for not looking over his shoulder to see the single Portuguese steaming to the box, history big in his eyes? Was the whole American team simply showing that it's still not ready for prime time?

When Portugal's Silvestre Varela scored, in the 95th minute, the latest non-overtime goal in World Cup history to deny the USA a victory, these were only the most obvious questions. Washington lawmakers have started congressional investigations for less.

But, just maybe, in this most extraordinary of World Cups, the disappointment of Sunday's 2-2 draw can find temperance in the joy of another extraordinary finish.

Yes, the USA should have won. Yes, Bradley should have been smarter in possession. Yes, Cameron should have been more aware.

But much about this World Cup has confounded common sense, and that has been its greatest charm. It has been soccer as it is meant to be played – in expectation of something wonderful, not in the dread of something bad. And for much of Sunday's game, the USA lived up that standard.

Put simply, America played an entertaining game against one of the best teams in the world and, if anything, was better than the scoreline suggested. This was not America potting a few lucky goals and defending for dear life. This was America giving as good as it got. 

There was the USA's Fabian Johnson moving into the spaces that Portuguese prima donna Cristiano Ronaldo deigned to defend, causing fits for the Portuguese defense. There was Jermaine Jones, seemingly hewn from rock in the American midfield. And there was the dreadlocked Kyle Beckerman putting in an industrious and unheralded shift befitting a Bethlehem steelworker in hard-hat and overalls.

This is what good teams do – what coach Jürgen Klinsmann has insisted the USA must do. It did not just nervously cover its own weaknesses. It probed and exploited Portugal's own weaknesses.

And more than anything, this is what the USA won on Sunday, even if the scoreboard offers no confirmation. On Sunday, it got just about everything right. Not perfect, obviously, but right. It had the game plan, the skill, and the execution to repeatedly unsettle Portugal. It made the right substitutions. It made the right tactical changes after losing forward Jozy Altidore to injury in the first game. 

Add it all up, and the USA came within a last-minute Hail Mary of doing something no one thought possible – being the first team to qualify for the second round out of a group that included Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

Almost is not the most compelling measure of progress, admittedly. The narrative of America's mounting soccer success would be so much cleaner if it were simpler this morning – if America had done the seemingly impossible Sunday night. But that's not the USA. Not yet.

Ultimately, wins and losses will be the true gauge of American success. Ultimately, Klinsmann wants to answer "yes" when asked whether the USA can win the World Cup. But the USA still doesn't have a single world class player. Teams like Argentina and Germany have a half-dozen.

That's all a part of the plan. In building his team around players like Johnson and Jones – German-Americans who grew up in the German soccer system and play in the German Bundesliga – he is attempting to raise the bar. He wants players who are tested weekly in the crucible of the world's toughest soccer leagues, and on Sunday, the American performance showed the fruits of that insistence. The USA has never played a more composed World Cup game against top-tier competition.

The next four years will be about pushing more Americans to be ready to take that leap.

The next four days will be about forgetting those last 28 seconds. Germany itself lies ahead Thursday. A win or a draw will get the USA into the next round. Even a loss could be good enough, depending on the result of the Portugal-Ghana game.

Germany's passing, movement, and ability to work in tight spaces is perhaps unrivaled in world soccer. But Germany, too, has its weaknesses.

The USA might just be able to do something about that.

At the very least, it should be entertaining.

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