MANAUS, Brazil – The United States was denied an extraordinary victory over Portugal and a guaranteed place in the knockout round of the World Cup on Sunday in the cruelest fashion possible.
A headed goal from Portugal's Silvestre Varela in the final seconds of stoppage time – the latest regulation goal in World Cup group-stage history – ensured that a thrilling contest ended in a 2-2 tie instead of a dream victory for the Americans and a place at the top of Group G.
After fighting back from an early deficit to move ahead in the second half, then hold on for dear life for all but the precious ultimate moments, it was a heart-breaking blow for Jurgen Klinsmann and his side.
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"I think we had one foot in the door so there is a small bit of disappointment," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "Realistically we gave ourselves every chance to advance. We're optimistic. We're where we want to be when we first stated this process. I feel like we have a chance, and we do."
The Americans still have a strong chance of progressing from the Group of Death, sitting in second place on four points, three clear of both Portugal and Ghana, with one game to go.
That comes against Germany on Thursday in Recife, where a draw would be enough to clinch second place and qualification for the round of 16. A win would secure first place.
The U.S. had been up against it from the very beginning. After just five minutes, Geoff Cameron sliced at a hopeful ball into the box, sending it skewing straight into the path of the unmarked Nani, who made no mistake in beating Howard from close range.
"In terms of opportunities we could have had more goals," Portugal coach Paulo Bento said. "We could've had a better score in the first half. We had a higher efficiency. We had better efficiency in the first 45 minutes. We could have dealt with the game there. Of course, the situation changed in the second half."
However, after some sustained U.S. pressure, Jermaine Jones equalized after 64 minutes with a thunderous strike from the edge of the area. Then, with nine minutes to go, captain Clint Dempsey scored – with his stomach. Substitute DeAndre Yedlin crossed from the right, the ball bounced around between Michael Bradley and Graham Zusi and Dempsey was alert enough to bundle it over the line.
The clock ticked as a glorious conclusion awaited before disaster struck. Cristiano Ronaldo demonstrated why he is best player in the world sending a perfect cross that found the fast-advancing Varela for the tying goal.
[Video: Team USA 'gutted' after drawing with Portugal]
"Football is cruel sometimes," Howard said. "It ebbs and flows. We try to take every result as it comes. We'll try to give ourselves 12 hours to ponder the result, but tomorrow will be a new day."
For the U.S. there is still all to play for. But it will have to recover from not only the heat of Manaus but also the dismay of those final seconds.
"I think the spirit is very good," Klinsmann said. "We are full of confidence. It's more difficult now, but we knew at the beginning it was a tough group. We're one foot in the door. We just have to get that second foot in there."
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