The Spot

Soccer Is a Cruel Game, but the U.S. Is Exactly Where It Deserves to Be

This is is what an unlucky draw looks like.

AFP/Getty / Raphael Alves

“The game is cruel.” So said American goalkeeper Tim Howard after the United States conceded a heart-breaking goal in the fifth minute of injury time to hand Portugal a 2–2 draw in their critical Group G World Cup match. Star central midfielder Michael Bradley, who surrendered the turnover that led to Portugal’s breakaway goal in the game’s dying seconds, had the same thought: “That’s soccer, it can be a cruel game sometimes.”

Every U.S. fan who had nearly witnessed the greatest come-from-behind win in the history of the U.S. men’s national team feels this cruelty. But U.S. Group G rival Ghana feels it even more deeply. The Ghanaians have experienced heartbreak equal to that of America’s twice at this World Cup. Last week, John Brooks scored the game-winner for the United States in the 86th minute of a game the Black Stars dominated and should have tied or won. And on Saturday Ghana went ahead 2–1 against group favorites Germany in the 63rd minute only to concede the equalizer eight minutes later.

“[The U.S.] should have lost against Ghana and they absolutely should have won today,” said ESPN commentator and left behind U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan of the two American performances. “They deserved to win, but in soccer ‘deserve’ doesn’t get you anything.”

Still, soccer often balances out the tough losses with lucky wins and allows the best teams to ultimately get where they deserve to go. Despite Sunday’s heartbreak in Manaus, the U.S. team is exactly where it deserves to be, which is in a very good position to advance to the round of 16 heading into the final group game against Germany.

Thanks to the lucky opening three points taken from Ghana, one more point was all the U.S. really needed against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. With it, they can determine their own fate against Germany on Thursday. A win will see them finish top of the group and a draw will allow them to qualify in the second spot. They are even in decent position to go through if they lose on Thursday, as long as Ghana or Portugal doesn’t move ahead of them on goal differential.  

On balance, this is a position they would have certainly taken at the start of the tournament, and it’s one that they thoroughly deserve to be in after a sloppy and lucky win over Ghana and an occasionally sloppy and unlucky draw against Portugal.

Both of Portugal’s goals were the result of terrible mistakes by the Americans. The first one could have been predicted by anyone who saw the U.S. center-back pairing of Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron fumble its way through the team’s World Cup warm-up matches. In just the fifth minute against Portugal, Stoke City’s Cameron flubbed what should have been an easy clearance to let the ball through to Nani for a wide-open look at goal and a 1–0 lead.

The U.S. were chasing the game for roughly the next 60 minutes, but an equalizer felt almost inevitable the way the team was dictating the pace of play and attacking the goal. When Jermaine Jones finally scored a Zeus-like thunderbolt to tie the game at 1–1 it felt like just deserts.

The team scored again in the 81st minute with a magnificent team goal. Twenty-year-old substitute DeAndre Yedlin streaked down the right sideline in a just-perfect run, setting up Michael Bradley with a cross that bounced off a Portuguese defender. When Bradley’s shot ricocheted off another Portuguese defender right to Graham Zusi, all the winger had to do was flick it to Clint Dempsey for the wide open chest shot into goal. Half of the U.S. team was involved in the score, and so for that matter was manager Jürgen Klinsmann, who made the crucial substitution of a young, unproven defender for the second game in a row.

At that point with nine minutes left to play in regular time, the Americans should have been sitting pretty. But the game turned on three crucial U.S. errors, and the third was yet to come.

The first error was the Cameron blunder in the opening minutes. The second came when Michael Bradley should have scored in the 55th minute but failed on a one-on-one opportunity with a lone Portuguese defender. Right-back Fabian Johnson, who is quickly starting to look like the best field player on the U.S. team, set Bradley up right in front of goal, but the Toronto F.C. midfielder slapped it right at Portugal defender Ricardo Costa’s knee. Practically any other spot would have been a goal and Bradley should have had plenty of time to finish.

Bradley’s other, critical mistake came in the game’s last gasp when he turned the ball over in the middle of the field, leading the most dangerous counterattacking player on the planet to have the perfect counterattacking opportunity. Cristiano Ronaldo sent in a gorgeous cross, Silvestre Varela headed in the equalizer, and that’s all she wrote.

It’s not inaccurate to say that these two Bradley errors cost the Americans the win.

Heading into Sunday, the U.S. team had never won at a World Cup match after conceding the opening goal. They also hadn’t won consecutive World Cup matches since their first two World Cup matches ever. That was in 1930. Those streaks continue.

The team moves on to Thursday’s Germany game in control of its destiny and on very firm ground to get out of the group. (Nate Silver gives the Americans a 75.8 percent chance, to be exact.)

Because both Germany and the U.S. each only need a draw now to advance to the round of 16, and because the U.S. coach is a German national who used to coach the German team, and because reporters are prone to theorize about such things, the talk now is that the two teams will collude to play a boring 0–0 draw that gets both sides through. There is precedent for this, specifically the Anschluss game at the 1982 World Cup between West Germany and Austria. The game is named after the Nazi annexation of Austria because the two teams colluded in the final minutes of the game to keep a 1–0 scoreline for West Germany that was good enough to send both teams through at the expense of African darlings Algeria.

But when a reporter broached this with Klinsmann after the game, he basically said his team was too exciting to take part in such shenanigans. I imagine Germany and the U.S. will both play very defensive games on Thursday, but it’s a fair point.

“Both teams go into this game and want to win the group,” he told conspiratorial reporters. “I don’t think that we are made for draws unless it happens like tonight.”