That's how close the U.S. came to booking its place in the knockout stage of this most unpredictable World Cup on Sunday. Instead, a late-late-late goal by Portugal drew the match 2-2, and though the survivors of this Group of Death won't be determined until Thursday afternoon's final group-stage matches, it's a safe bet the U.S. will go marching on.
So relax. And marvel at yet another nail-biting finish in an opening round for the ages. Much like last Monday's match against Ghana, the action started early and finished late. Portugal went ahead five minutes in thanks to a defensive snafu, when U.S. defender Geoff Cameron botched a clearance and delivered the ball to Portugal's Nani, who promptly booted it past U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Despite this, Howard went on to have, mostly, one hell of a game, pulling off a number saves, including a majestic leaping stretch just before halftime that kept hope alive.
Both U.S. goals were lookers. Jermaine Jones' long-range opener hit just over an hour in and came from nearly nothing, and everyone, including Portugal's goalkeeper, just watched it fly in.
Clint Dempsey followed up his early heroics against Ghana last week with a late goal here, pulling off a meme-worthy hip-check in the 81st minute to put the U.S. up 2-1. The build-up, pinballish as it was, originated with DeAndre Yedlin, a sub who'd come on 8 minutes prior and whose performance put to bed any questions over U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to include him on the team.
And yet, here we are talking about a Portugal match and Cristiano Ronaldo has yet to be mentioned. The handsome man, who took the pitch looking like he lost a bet (though it's entirely possible his Zorro 'do was for a good cause) was about as threatening as a platypus until the last few seconds of injury time, when he whipped an inch-perfect cross in to meet the head of Silvestre Varela, who cannoned the ball past Howard. The goal drew the match 2-2 and soured tens of thousands of prematurely poured celebratory drinks.
A Do-Or-Die (Or Draw) Showdown With Germany
Last night's result leaves the U.S. level on points with Germany in the group, both with 4. Ghana and Portugal each have 1 point. The final group matches this Thursday pit the U.S. against Germany and Portugal against Ghana. There are about 40,000 ways this can play out, but more than likely Germany's going to top the group and the U.S. will take second. Win or draw, the U.S. makes it to the knockout round.
But if the U.S. loses to Germany and either Ghana or Portugal win, get out your abacus; because things get complicated. The short version is this: hope for a win or a draw, and for a draw in Ghana-Portugal. But if the U.S. loses and Ghana wins (or Portugal, but thanks to goal difference, the U.S. would have to get whacked hard and Portugal would really have to blow it out), depending on the margins, Ghana could squeak by in an upset. Just what America loves: math
Right now, the U.S. is a heavy favorite to go through, but as this World Cup has proven so far, goddamn near anything can happen. But chances are, come Thursday at around 2 p.m. (for those of you on the East Coast), only one of these scenarios will matter. Advancement – through aggregate, arithmetic or otherwise – is a major accomplishment for this team, especially in this group.
So let Sunday's near miss sink in, then put it behind you. The U.S. has never made it to the knockout stage in consecutive World Cups; that can all change on Thursday. Another chance to savor those celebratory drinks.