By FRANCO PANIZO
MANAUS, Brazil — The U.S. Men’s National Team’s once again delivered some late World Cup dramatics, but so too did Portugal.
Substitute forward Varela scored a last-gasp goal at Arena Amazonia on Sunday night to give Portugal a thrilling 2-2 draw with the U.S., which had rallied from an early deficit and was on the brink of securing an early ticket to the Round of 16.
Nani opened the scoring five minutes in, but the Americans responded through second-half strikes from Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey. Those goals had the U.S. on the cusp of advancing to the knockout phase, but Cristiano Ronaldo delivered a splendid cross from the right flank that Varela nodded home on the game’s final play.
The result leaves the U.S. a total of four points and second place in Group G behind Germany — but it also keeps Portugal alive in the tournament with one point, which Ghana has as well heading into the final round of group matches.
“When you get a goal in the last second of the game, when you would’ve been on six points, then it’s a bummer for a moment that you have to swallow,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. ”But I think it was an outstanding game with all the players. We discussed at halftime, ‘It’s all good guys. We’re going to get this first goal and then we’re going to get a second goal.’
“We felt very confident that we could turn things around, which we did that. We could’ve added a third or fourth goal with the chances we had. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that and it ended in a tie.”
Varela’s goal gave a shorthanded Portugal a result in a match in which the Americans dominated possession after falling behind early. Geoff Cameron whiffed on a clearance attempt after a cross was sent in from the left and the ball skipped to the back post, where a wide open Nani stood before smashing a shot into the roof of the net.
After a few more Portugal attacks that looked threatening, Klinsmann’s side settled into the match, bossed possession for large stretches and took multiple shots on goal.
“Maybe it was a better sequence this time than in the (2-1 win vs. Ghana) where we scored in the first minute and then defended too much,” said Klinsmann. “This way you concede a goal and then you take the game to the opponent. If it’s Portugal, who cares? Go forward, and that’s what we did.”
Added center back Matt Besler: “I thought we responded very, very well (with the way) we were able to calm down, to keep the ball. We really got into a rhythm after they scored and played some of our best soccer for the rest of that half.”
Dempsey, Jones, Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson all had goes from distance, but none of their shots were accurate enough to beat Portugal goalkeeper Beto.
As good as the Americans looked in the first half, they still needed a couple of saves from Tim Howard to keep them in the game. Howard stopped Nani on a chance late in the first half, and then produced one of the best stops of the World Cup just before halftime.
Howard had initially botched a block on a powerful Nani shot that stung off the near post, but used his left hand to paw away Eder’s rebounded effort despite the fact that momentum was carrying the U.S. goalkeeper away from the ball.
Portugal also had a spectacular save in the match. Bradley had a golden chance to equalize the game after Johnson cut a ball back to him early in the second half, but Ricardo Costa came up with a huge goal-line clearance to keep the Portuguese out in front.
That changed in the 64th minute. Jones brought down a cleared ball outside of the penalty area and sliced it past a frozen Beto to record his third goal at the international level.
“In that moment, I think the whole team is happy. Me, too,” Jones said. “We missed a big chance with Michael, so we was pushing and pushing and pushing. We have a lot of energy lost, so when I scored I can feel Portugal was a little like down and you could see that we would push more.”
Dempsey added his second of the tournament 17 minutes later off a low cross from Graham Zusi that came after substitute DeAndre Yedlin played a ball in from the right, giving the Americans a dramatic lead that sent the pro-U.S. fans into a frenzy.
Varela, however, made sure that would not be the winner. He nodded home Ronaldo’s 95th-minute cross from the right flank to leave the U.S. in disbelief and Portugal alive in the tournament.
“It’s kind of sad,” said Johnson. “If somebody had told us that we’re going to have four points after those two games, we’d have taken it. But we’re kind of, little bit disappointed.”
The U.S. will need to look past that disappointment quickly, as the final game of group play comes on Thursday against Germany at Arena Pernambuco in Recife. A draw would see both teams advance to the Round of 16.
Portugal and Ghana play simultaneously in the other Group G match at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia.