Fans of the United States men’s national soccer team are speechless right now, but they shouldn’t be heartbroken.
Team USA conceded an early goal before rampaging back to overturn the deficit. Then, Portugal midfielder Silvestre Varela tied the game with a last-gasp goal that left the Americans stunned and deflated. While disappointment is warranted, there’s no need for U.S. fans to feel the sting of heartbreak.
The United States is only lamenting the draw because it played well enough to win. Buoyed on by last week’s victory over Ghana, the United States imposed itself on (a weakened) Portugal for much of the game, and many players greatly enhanced their reputations with their their performances.
Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones showed immense character in their goal-scoring efforts. Jones demonstrated the technique and innate self-belief of a player with UEFA Champions League seasoning. The “fight-to-the-death” spirit of both East Texas and American’s inner-cities that Dempsey embodies was on clear display when he scored the go-ahead goal.
Team USA scored two goals for the second World Cup game in a row. It could have scored at least two more. This team may lack superstars but it has enough attacking quality and sense of mission to put themselves on the scoreboard on the world’s biggest stage.
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That’s the good part. The bad part is the difference between wins and draws, draws and losses.
The United States didn’t defend well enough against Portugal. It started with Geoff Cameron’s sliced clearance, which fell to Nani in the fifth minute. It continued throughout the game, as Portugal created (but failed to finish) a host of scoring chances of its own.
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Cameron was the central defender about whom U.S. fans weren’t supposed to worry. The 28-year-old is a regular starter for Stoke City in England’s Premier League, but his early mistake showed the difference between world- and European-champion level defenders and the rest. It’s small — probably a half-inch one way other another over the course of 90 minutes.
Varela also beat Cameron to Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross when he scored the game-tying goal, but that was a result of a total team breakdown. The United States never had its defensive shape in that sequence. Late substitute Omar Gonazlez was nowhere the center back spot he should have been occupying. If Team USA set itself up the way it was supposed to, Jones, Michael Bradley or Kyle Beckerman would have tracked Varela’s run or taken out Ronaldo before he had a chance to make the final pass. And Ronaldo’s perfect delivery befits his status as the sport’s best player.
The United States could have used a specialist holding midfielder in that fateful sequence. Or maybe Jones should have been doing what he built his career by doing: destroying plays in the midfield by any means necessary. Or perhaps, Michael Bradley should never have given the ball away to Eder in the first place.
Results swing on such details, and we can pick them apart ad nauseum. The U.S. national team wasn’t, isn’t and might never be perfect. But it is becoming more perfect.
What matters most is that the United States earned a point and new fans by outplaying an opponent that was supposed to overpower it. Despite the early deficit, Team USA took the fight to Portugal and nearly came out on top. On Thursday, U.S. fans might be able to see that momentary heartbreak for what it is: the growing pains that inevitably accompany forward progress.