We were so close. Thirty seconds from a win against Portugal, first place in Group G and - most importantly - a guaranteed spot in the knockout rounds of the World Cup - the United States men's national team went and blew it. Michael Bradley turned it over, Cristiano Ronaldo ran and crossed, and Silvestre Varela headed home the equalizer halfway through the fifth and final minute of second half stoppage time.
And just like that, the USA went from euphoria to something less than euphoria - not distress or depression, more like frustration. We're still in good position to advance to the Round of 16, but it's something well below the sure thing it almost was. A result against Germany will assure advancement, but a loss opens the doors to questions and tiebreakers, exactly what Jurgen Klinsmann & co. - along with the 20,000 US fans in Manaus and the millions here at home - wanted not to deal with.
What is striking is the contrast Sunday's game plays to the Yanks' opener against Ghana. In that game, the US went ahead early - 29 seconds early - and immediately retreated into a defensive shell that was always bound to fail against a pressing Ghana side. Once it did, the US was caught between trying to hold on to the draw and get the win they knew they should go for to survive the Group of Death. Perhaps undeservedly for the US, John Brooks put his head onto Graham Zusi's corner kick 86 minutes into the game and put three points into the American account.
On Sunday, it was the USA on the other side of things. Portugal went ahead early, forcing the US to push for an equalizer. Portugal didn't retreat quite as far as we did against Ghana, but they eventually settled in to absorb pressure and try to break on the counter. Jermaine Jones' curling effort put the US on equal terms, and the US rode the momentum right up until Clint Dempsey humped the go-ahead goal into Portugal's net. It felt like destiny, which may have been how Ghana felt when they finally found a way to beat Tim Howard.
And then we learned how Ghana felt when they got Brooks'ed. Ronaldo chose not to take a stupid shot and instead use his teammate. His inch-perfect cross found Varela, who had managed to put just enough space between himself and Geoff Cameron. Tim Howard never had a chance, just like Adam Kwarasey never had a chance on Brooks' winner.
It's really a lot more fun to be on the side of the story where your hero vanquishes the villain in the final act. We tasted that dish last Monday; on Sunday we got the other dessert. And it sucks. Soccer, she is a cruel, two-faced bitch sometimes.
But we still come out ahead of Ghana and Portugal going into the final round of group stage matches. A result against Germany - even one lousy point - puts the US through. There's even hope should the Steam Team lose to die Mannschaft on Thursday. Meanwhile, both Portugal and Ghana have to play for three points to have any hope of qualifying for the next stage. It's not the sure thing we were half a minute from celebrating, but it's not death.