Anguish in the Amazon: Five Takeaways from USA 2-2 Portugal

Soccer Features Portugal

One more minute.

That’s how much longer the United States needed to keep Portugal out of their net to claim all three points in Manaus and book their place in the Round of 16.

Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo whipped in a cross that cracked the US’s defensive safe and was smashed home by the head of substitute Silvestre Varela—a goal that kept Portugal’s World Cup hopes alive with a 2-2 draw and yanked the Yanks back down to Earth.

Here are five talking points from the match:

1. All to play for

It may feel like a loss to the United States, who were so close to progressing into the knockout stages—but it isn’t a loss.

The US still earned a point in Manaus, bringing them up to four total, which has them level with Germany, who they’ll play on Thursday in Recife—and both teams are three points ahead of Ghana and Portugal, who go into their final fixture with one apiece.

This point is crucial, as it allows the US to advance with a draw against the Germans—or even with a loss, provided the Americans get some help in the Portugal-Ghana match (ideally, for both USA and Germany, the two other teams draw).

All of the members of the so-called “Group of Death” remain with a pulse, however faint, heading into the final matchday—but only two will make it out alive on Thursday.

2. Klinsmann got it right

He was disparaged as a figurehead and naïve idealist during Germany’s run to third place in the 2006 World Cup, maligned for dropping Landon Donovan before this tournament, and called crazy (or worse) by the media for some of his comments over the past month—but, Sunday, almost without qualification, US manager Jürgen Klinsmann got it right.

Faced with a hamstring injury to striker Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann opted to replace his forward with a midfielder, Graham Zusi, and trot out a 4-5-1 formation.

It worked.

The US conceded early after a Geoff Cameron miscue, but the silver lining was that it meant Portugal retreated into a protective shell. From that point forward, the US was solid defensively and positionally sound across the pitch. There were misplaced passes and instances of lackadaisical marking in transition, but Klinsmann’s team for the most part was firm and accountable in the defensive third and went forward with a head of steam (which, to be fair, was hard not to have in that humidity).

Questions will always be thrown the manager’s way when a team gives up a late lead, but Klinsmann’s strategy set his team up to win.

As the 22 players were smothered in the Amazon’s humid blanket, Klinsmann opted to bring in 20-year-old Seattle Sounders right back DeAndre Yedlin, who, during the last World Cup, was playing for a travel team not far from the stadium at which he now plays professionally.

The young Yedlin, with his penchant for lapses in attention and maddening defensive quirks, was widely viewed as an awkward selection from Klinsmann before the tournament—particularly as the defender was taken in place of club teammate Brad Evans, who was a mainstay at right back during World Cup qualifying.

Nevertheless, Yedlin was brought along for what he can provide late in games—pace—and, Sunday, was pressed into service as a right midfielder.

As they say, “speed kills,” and Yedlin was tasked with stretching the Portuguese rearguard in the last twenty minutes after they had used their final sub.

It worked to perfection.

It was Yedlin’s pace that allowed him to get behind the defense and cross the ball that eventually, after finding its way to Graham Zusi and then Clint Dempsey, ended up in Portugal’s net for the US’s go-ahead goal. It was Yedlin who forced opposing central midfielders to squeeze over to his flank in a bid to strip him of possession in the absence of Ronaldo refusing to track back late in the game. It was Yedlin, who—unlike Michael Bradley against Ghana—intelligently put the ball in the corner as the Americans attempted to run down the clock in the final seconds.

Klinsmann’s faith in the green Yedlin was rewarded—and along with his use of John Brooks against Ghana—is emblematic of his managerial career at the international level, which has in many ways borne fruit based on a trust in the inexperienced and the inconsistent.

Some will question how long Michael Bradley was on the pitch, or why the US changed its shape in the last minute by hauling off Zusi for Omar Gonzalez—but it’s hard to pin this draw on Klinsmann, who made several bold, inspired calls that put the US in a position to secure all three points.

3. Jermaine does it again

Yet again, US midfielder Jermaine Jones had an outstanding game. He got lost for 15 minutes in defensive coverage against Ghana and had a few errant passes early and late against Portugal, but he nevertheless enjoyed a second consecutive sterling outing for the Stars and Stripes.

Jones was instrumental for the Yanks on both sides of the ball, scoring the equalizer—a sizzling, curled rip from the edge of the area—and winning 100 percent of his duels on the night.

He worked tirelessly in the midfield, roaming from box-to-box to establish the US’s possession with active link-up play, timely lay-offs, and a handful of brilliant balls into space. He tracked the few deep runs that came from Portugal’s three-pronged central midfield and drifted out wide to play responsible help defense on wingers Ronaldo and Nani.

Even his yellow card—a rather well-timed tackle that some referees wouldn’t have whistled, let alone cautioned, him for—was a prudent defensive measure that successfully halted Portugal’s dangerous transition play a safe distance from goal.

For a man who was widely panned at the beginning of the cycle for a lack of consistency, poise, and decision-making, Jones has showcased his worth to this team over the past 180 minutes and hardly put a foot wrong all night.

He certainly put one very, very right—into a ball that landed in the right corner of Portugal’s net.

4. Stay calm and create your own luck

Jürgen Klinsmann was introduced to many American households during the last World Cup as neither a coach nor player—but an analyst.

Working for ESPN in South Africa, “Klinsi” preached the need for the United States to keep a level head after the wild emotional swings of both tournament successes and defeats. Specifically, he was critical of then-US coach Bob Bradley for not doing enough to keep his team simultaneously with its feet on the ground and heads held toward the sky.

Now is Klinsmann’s chance to put his money where his mouth is.

This would be a very understandable time for any team to buckle in a World Cup, having played two hard-fought matches in six days, against difficult conditions and with a great deal of air travel.

The United States has met or surpassed the expectations of even its most optimistic fans through their first week of play, emerging from its nemesis Ghana and Ronaldo’s Portugal undefeated.

They can already go home feeling a sense of accomplishment, no matter what happens next.

That, however, would not have impressed Klinsmann as pundit—and it should not impress Klinsmann as manager.

Hired (and given four additional years on his newest contract) to change the culture of US Soccer, Klinsmann and his team will be hungry to get a result against Germany and prove that they don’t require luck to get to the knockout stages.

Rather, they create their own.

5. Get the old Michael Bradley back

Michael Bradley has now turned in the worst 180 minutes he’s had in a US shirt since the first two matches of the 2009 Confederations Cup.

There have been few bright spots in Brazil so far for Il Generale and the US has missed the spark of Bradley, who has acted, in equal part, the Yanks’ metronome, engineer, and demolition man in the past.

This team has ticked around Bradley for the past four years leading up to the World Cup—and has miraculously gotten out of two dismal performances from the Toronto FC midfielder only minimally scathed. That is in many ways a testament to how Klinsmann’s team has evolved and performed in Brazil—but it’s also deeply telling about how Bradley has handled the conditions and a more advanced role in a crowded midfield.

On Sunday, it was his mistake that cost the US dearly in the final seconds. His turnover in the 95th minute kickstarted the final Portuguese attack that ended with an equalizer.

This was after Bradley also fluffed his lines in front of goal, when Ricardo Costa blocked a shot that you would have bet your house on him easily converting.

He must move on from this because the US needs its old Michael Bradley back against Germany, a team that absolutely dominated Portugal’s midfield (even before the Portuguese were reduced to 10 men).

If not, the US may be ending its South American voyage well before they had hoped.

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