By Mary Cunningham
The U.S. has gone from being in the driver’s seat to having to ask for help in getting where they’d like to be.
That’s how big Portugal’s goal in the closing seconds looms for the U.S., which had to settle for a 2-2 tie Sunday in Brazil’s steamy rain forest.
With a win, the U.S. would have jumped into first place in its four-team group and guaranteed itself passage to the second round. But Cristiano Ronaldo’s picture-perfect cross, which led to a diving header by Varela with 30 seconds to play, cost the U.S. two points in the standings and, for the moment, a spot in the knockout stage.
With a tie or a win Thursday on the final day of group play, the U.S. advances to the next round. But if it loses and Ghana scores enough goals to both beat Portugal and overcome a two-score deficit to the U.S. in goal differential, then the U.S. goes home.
And speaking of friends, guess who Juergen Klinsmann and the U.S. play next? Germany, the team Klinsmann led to a World Cup title as a player and the team he coached to the semifinals of the World Cup eight years ago.
Germany, whose coach, Joachim Loew, got his start with the national team under Klinsmann. And Germany, home to five players on the U.S. roster.
Since a tie would also send Germany on to the second round, Klinsmann was peppered Sunday with questions about the possibility of agreeing to a “friendly draw” with Loew.
“There’s no such call,” he said. “Jogi is doing his job and I’m doing my job. I’m going to do everything to get to the round of 16.
“There’s no time to have friendship calls. It’s about business now.”
It has happened before, though. In 1982, West Germany and Austria agreed to play to a draw that allowed both teams to advance while eliminating Algeria.
That won’t happen again Thursday, Klinsmann promised.
“The U.S. knows only how to give everything it has in every game,” he said. “We have that fighting spirit and that energy and determination to do well in every single game. Our goal is to beat Germany.”
The U.S. would have been talking less about Germany and more about another character-building comeback or its second-round opponent if the Michael Bradley hadn’t been stripped of the ball at midfield in the final minute. That sent up the lightning counterattack that ended with Varela’s tying goal.
It was an abrupt U-turn for a team that, 15 minutes earlier, appeared to have made history. When Clint Dempsey scored in the 81st minute, it put the U.S. in front, leaving it on the verge of qualifying for the knockout round of a World Cup after two games for the first time.
Nani had put Portugal up 1-0 in the fifth minute — although he had a lot of help from U.S. defender Geoff Cameron, whose weak clearance attempt bounced directly to a wide-open Nani near the right post and he easily beat goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Portugal nearly doubled that lead in the dying moments of the first half, with only the goal post and remarkable one-handed save by Howard keeping it a one-goal game.
That proved huge when Jermaine Jones scored the equalizer midway through the second half. Then came Dempsey’s goal. And though it didn’t stand up as the winner, defender Matt Besler said the U.S. is still headed where it wants to go.
“We’re all disappointed. We could taste the second round, we were right there,” he said. “(But) we have four points from two games. We’re in control of our own destiny.
“I think we like to do things the hard way. It’s the American way.”