U.S. chokes away chance to advance

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MANAUS, Brazil – The whole thing was hanging right there, hanging in the thick jungle air that the United States had somehow powered through and somehow even found strength in, motivated by the misery.

It was all there for the taking, an epic victory over Portugal, a guaranteed spot in the knockout round and control of the so-called Group of Death with a game still to go.

Oh my was this going to be an all-timer of a result, a night for the ages, a come-from-behind victory in hellacious conditions that displayed everything the American team likes to believe it is about – ferocious, resilient, unrelenting and most notably, a contender in the making.

Then came the 95th and final minute in stoppage time on a grueling night. Then came a Michael Bradley turnover. Then there was a pass up to Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. Then an epic, bending cross, a run by Silvestre Varela as a slew of American defenders failed to mark him and finally a header for a buzzer-beating 2-2 draw.

Turnover, cross, head, net, goal, tie … and it was all gone into the Amazon night. There's work still to be done for a U.S. team that left here wilted and wobbling. So, so much work to do.

"We could all taste it," defender Matt Besler said. "We could taste the second round. We were right there. … I think we like to do things the hard way. It's the American way."

On Sunday, the American Way meant when one more play was needed no one made it. When a come-from-behind victory needed to be closed out, no one closed.

[Slideshow: Biggest moments of U.S. vs. Portugal ]

Credit Ronaldo for a clutch play – shaking off a game of frustration and perfectly delivering what was perhaps the only possible way for Portugal to draw even. Credit Varela for making a charge right through the American defense that couldn't stop him. Cite the swinging fortunes of the sport, which five nights ago saw the U.S. celebrating a late victory over Ghana.

"Football is cruel sometimes," goalkeeper Tim Howard offered.

Or call out the Americans for kicking away the whole thing after all they had sweated and fought and bled for out here, after the tying goal by Jermaine Jones on a blast in the 64th minute and after the presumptive winner by Clint Dempsey on a deflection off his chest in the 81st. Go ahead and complain that in the last desperate moment they let Ronaldo get into the open and beat them. A final lapse. A final sin.

They all would be correct.

"So many chances to finish it off," coach Jurgen Klinsmann lamented.

So many challenges to come.

Dempsey now has a banged up ankle to go along with his black eye (to go with a broken nose against Ghana). Besler came up with a hamstring injury during the game. Michael Bradley was almost immobile in the final few minutes, just completely spent after competing in oppressive heat and humidity.

"The field is as heavy as can be," Bradley said. "We physically, mentally put so much into it and to get back to [a 1-1 tie] and get to [a 2-1 lead], I think everything at that point was taken care of. But Portugal's dangerous players …"

The Americans tried to focus on the positive. They still control their destiny – a win or tie against Germany on Thursday in Recife puts them through and even a loss might not send them home. Plenty of pundits didn't think they would get a single point and they already have four … they are proving to be a strong club … on and on they went.

Yet the toll was obvious. This was no ordinary tie. This was no ordinary effort.

They must face a German team that has an extra day of rest and avoided this meat grinder up here. They have to find quick recoveries, physically, mentally and emotionally. They have to heal and recharge and then take on the toughest challenge yet.

[Related: Klinsmann: FIFA has given preferential treatment to Germany ]

Or else they'll allow gagging on that last play to ruin everything they've built.

"Everything is now gearing to Germany," Klinsmann said. "We will not talk anymore about Portugal. It's off the table."

He can only hope it is that simple.

With each exhausted player trudging out of the Arena da Amazonia, walking back into the sauna and to a waiting bus that could, at last, get them out of here, the looks kept telling the same story.

In the harshest of conditions, in the hardest of ways, they had it set up, all there for the taking. They'd done it the American way.

And then, in the final instant, it was gone. How much was lost with the draw remains to be seen.

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