Jun 22, 2014, 10:21 PM EST
Now two hours after Silvestre Valera’s goal, fans’ disappointment is starting to give way. A more objective, less emotional reality is taking hold.
Yes, that just happened. Yes, the United States just went toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and nearly replicated 2002′s famous result. And yes, to the surprise of those who judged harshly after the win over Ghana, the U.S. is capable of playing some attractive, occasionally imposing soccer.
In the big picture, that means progress: Significant steps forward from 2010 – at least, in terms of how the team plays. Isolated to Brazil 2014, however, the result means the U.S. has work to do on Thursday against Germany.
Before we shift focus, though, let’s take another moment to consider what happened today in Manaus. Here’s three — no, four — talking points after the U.S.’s 2-2 draw with Portugal:
0. Let’s count all the ‘holy crap’ moments we’ve seen so far - Just in the U.S. matches, we’ve had …
- Clint Dempsey scoring 29 seconds after kickoff;
- John Brooks scoring four minutes from time after his team had conceded a killer equalizer;
- Geoff Cameron shanking a clearance to gift Nani a goal;
- Jermaine Jones with one of the best goals of the tournament; and,
- Silvestre Varela snatching two points from the U.S. seconds from the final whistle.
This being the internet, I’d normally say “go home, World Cup, you’re drunk.” But no. No, no, no. Keep going. The next round’s on me. Stick around, World Cup. You are such an irresistible drunk.
1. The criticism of Bradley and Cameron has already started - There’s no defending Cameron’s mistake. His fifth-minute error won’t happen again, but it was still one of the worst mistakes we’ve seen at the World Cup. That Cameron was the man Varela ran behind on the tying goal only compounded the defender’s problems. He wasn’t the only man at fault, but his part meant he was involved in both Portugal goals.
As for Bradley, his giveaway that sparked Portugal’s last second counter is already being dissected (and rightly so), but the midfielder’s fatigue was evident moments earlier, when he stoically watched a Jermaine Jones pass roll to a Portuguese attacker in the U.S.’s third. Gassed by the end of regulation time, Bradley seemed out on his feet come the 95th minute, unable to maintain possession in those final, crucial moments.
Through 180 minutes in Brazil, Bradley hasn’t been himself. Against Ghana, you could explain that as him battling two defensive midfielders without the outlet of Jozy Altidore. Sunday’s game, however, was different. Though Klinsmann’s tweaked his formation to feature what’s normally his best player, Bradley has yet to distinguish himself in at this year’s World Cup.
2. Consider the proof of concept … - As the U.S. adjusted to Portugal’s early goal, eventually fighting back to take a second-half lead, all the qualities Jurgen Klinsmann’s been trying to install again came through. Granted, I said the same thing after the U.S. defeated Ghana, so this may be one writer who can’t let a narrative go. Still, let’s go down the checklist, shall we?
- More resiliency/Better equipped to adapt to adversity: See the response to André Ayew’s goal, the comeback against Portugal, and the adaptation in the absence of Jozy Altidore.
- More flexibilty/An ability to dictate play, when needed: It wasn’t needed for most of the match against Ghana, when the U.S. proved capable of playing on the back foot (four shots on goal to Ghana’s three). Against Portugal, Nani’s early goal made sure the Klinsmann fulfilled his promise of a more aggressive approach. Though the final scoreline wasn’t as good, the performance was more convincing. The U.S. just doesn’t have a set approach.
- More depth/Less reliance on stars: Clint Dempsey was huge today, but Bradley — the U.S.’s most important player — was average at best, and while Europe-proven Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones had huge impacts, the MLS talents that Klinsmann has brought into the pool also paid off. Matt Besler was the team’s best defender, Graham Zusi made key contributions, Kyle Beckerman has become part of the foundation, while Chris Wonolowski and DeAndre Yedlin proved valuable options off the bench. Klinsmann is using more players, instilling them with the confidence they can compete at this level, and proving the depth in the U.S. pool is not as shallow as previously thought.
3. … and the progress the U.S. has shown - Klinsmann was derided for saying the U.S. can’t win the World Cup, but was that ever the goal for this cycle? More readily, the goal was progress, and while 180 minutes isn’t much of a sample, compare this year’s performance against 2010′s.
While the U.S. finished first in that year’s group, the packet was weak. As the second round match against Ghana showed, the U.S. didn’t need to make progress as a program to top that foursome. This year, the U.S. beat Ghana. They went toe-to-toe with a Portugal team many thought would play through them.
Tied for first in their group, the U.S. has fully deserved their results. The team was seconds away from its first two-win group stage in history, and there’s still one match to go.
Most casting Portugal were clear favorites were basing their judgement on reputation alone. Portugal is established, European, have more talent, and play better soccer. In their eyes, the U.S. just aren’t on that level.
After today’s performance, does that perception change? The U.S. probably needs to get out of its group (and impress in the knockout round) before detractors believe a gridiron country and every produce a “proper football team,” but the objective reality is much different.
Even if the U.S. doesn’t make the final 16, they’ve shown huge progress at this tournament. The team may not be among the best in the world, but the arrow’s definitely pointed in the right direction.
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