Silvestre Varela’s last-second header goal put a sour note on the U.S. national team’s performance against Portugal, but it should not take away from what was still an encouraging night for a team that showed it can respond to adversity and Sunday’s 2-2 draw was not a case of the U.S. getting lucky to be in the game, or having a bad call go its way.
No, the Americans outplayed Portugal, and the Portuguese deserve some credit for that due to their own sloppy and uninspired play for much of the match. In fact, you probably have to go back to the 2002 World Cup, when the U.S. played a mighty German team in the quarterfinals before losing a 1-0 decision, to remember a game where the Americans so clearly showed an ability to match skills with one of the top teams at the World Cup.
The reality is there were more positives than negatives coming out of Sunday’s draw, but it’s tough to see it that way given just how tantalizingly close the U.S. came to a victory that would have gone down as one of the best in national team history.
That isn’t to say the Americans were close to perfect. They weren’t. There were too many wasted chances, to many defensive mistakes and to much general sloppiness to even consider that, but what we did see was improvement from the opening win against Ghana, as well as a fighting spirit that makes this team easy to root for.
Then there were the U.S. fans who made the trip to the Amazon to cheer their team on. I was in South Korea 12 years ago when the U.S. played Portugal at the World Cup and back then the Americans were severely outnumbered in the stands. On Sunday, the U.S. faithful matched Portuguese fans, even with the Brazilians in attendance seeming to back their fellow Portuguese-speaking brethren. “I Believe” could be heard being chanted throughout the night, and U-S-A chants were just as loud as the Por-Tu-Gal chants.
On the field, there were clearly bright spots and question marks. Jermaine Jones was outstanding yet again, continuing his emergence as the U.S. team’s best player of the tournament. Matt Besler showed us why he’s considered the best American central defender. Fabian Johnson continued to shine as an attacking right back, leaving you to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he should have held off on signing with Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Then there were the question marks. Michael Bradley once again put in a ton of work, but also came away with two key moments that raise questions about his play. The first was a clear look at an open goal that he had cleared off the line after hitting his shot toward the middle rather than toward a corner.
Then a moment Bradley will hear about for some time, when he lost possession of a ball in traffic with the match’s final seconds ticking away. If he does anything but lose the ball, the U.S. goes on to win, but he did lose the ball, which sparked a counter that culminated with Cristiano Ronaldo’s perfect cross and Varela’s header.
Bradley wasn’t the only one to blame on that equalizer, but his role was magnified by the fact he came into the Portugal match needing to redeem himself after a subpar outing against Ghana. He came into this World Cup expected to be one of the U.S. team’s best players, and he has fallen well short of that, leading to questions of why he hasn’t been able to duplicate or exceed the high level he played at during the 2010 World Cup.
On one hand, it must be said that the fact that the U.S. has managed to secure four points, and very nearly six points, with Bradley playing well below his normally elite level shows just how well the team has played as a group. It is a testament to the balance of the squad, and the success of Klinsmann’s tactics, that the rest of the team has raised its level.
That said, the Americans are going to need Bradley back at his best if they are going to earn a positive result against Germany on Thursday, and if they are going to have any hope of a deep run at this World Cup. In 2002, Claudio Reyna was the midfield ace who stepped his game up to a new level and helped drive the Americans to the quarterfinals.
Right now, Jermaine Jones has done his part to fill that role, but if Bradley were to recapture his usual commanding level, there is no telling how far this U.S. team can go.
That should be the lasting takeaway from Sunday’s draw with Portugal. Not the last-minute equalizer surrendered, but the improvement shown by the team, and the progress that continues to be made at a World Cup when few expected much from the Americans beforehand. Now, expectations are growing right along with the team’s play, and that is the truest sign of progress of all.