The U.S. game plan Sunday was to control Cristiano Ronaldo. And for 94 minutes it worked like a charm.
Then came the final 30 seconds of stoppage time, when Michael Bradley of the U.S. lost the ball at midfield, allowing Ronaldo to rush up the right side and bend a beautiful cross to Varela for a diving header, earning Portugal a 2-2 draw and costing the U.S. an automatic spot in the second round.
"We did a great job not allowing him in dangerous spots. He never really got into a rhythm," U.S. defender Matt Besler said. "We weren't taking shots at him at all [but] we were just right up against him and making him feel us.
"It's just funny, the last play of the game he finally gets into open space, which he wasn't allowed that the entire night, and instead of trying to take someone on one-on-one, he takes a touch and whips in a world-class ball.
"It's a tough one to swallow, but that's why he's Cristiano."
Before the last minute Ronaldo, the reigning world player of the year, had been a nonfactor. He had one dangerous run up the right side in the second half, but it ended with a shot from inside the 18-yard box that missed the net completely.
Midfielder Jermaine Jones, who scored the first U.S. goal midway through the second half, took some of the credit for shutting down Ronaldo.
"If you see the game, then you can see that the coach, he switched me from left to right to make this side more closed to Cristiano," he said. "Everybody knows that he has a good strike. And he always cut to the inside. My job was to close that gap."
Reasons to smile
Although Portugal's last-minute goal cost the U.S. passage to the second round for the time being, Coach Juergen Klinsmann and most of the players tried to remain upbeat, saying that the four points they have after two games was their target coming into the tournament.
"We had one foot in the door, so there's a small bit of disappointment," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "Realistically, we have given ourselves every chance to advance. We are optimistic; we are pretty much where we wanted to be when we started this whole process.
"Football is cruel sometimes. It ebbs and flows. We'll try to give ourselves 12 hours or so to ponder the result, but tomorrow will be a new day. We've got a great chance … to go through and advance. We're excited."
Despite the result, Klinsmann said Sunday's match gives him team something positive to build on.
"It was an amazing game, amazing performance by our guys, nothing more you could ask for," Klinsmann said. "We just have to go the tougher way, get a result against Germany. Everything we talked through over the last weeks came into place.
"We take even more confidence now into the next game, and it's going to be another final. But that's what a World Cup is about."
Added captain Clint Dempsey: "Obviously we're disappointed, but at the end of the day you have to look at the positives. We got a point, we're on four points now, this is going to go down to the last game and hopefully we're going to get the job done."
The U.S. team is wasting no time getting ready for the Germany match. They left Manaus immediately after the game for the four-hour flight back to their Sao Paulo training base, beginning the process of medical and physiological regeneration on the plane.
The team will then make the three-hour flight to Recife on Tuesday ahead of Thursday afternoon's kickoff.
"We have one day less to recover," Klinsmann said. "They played [Saturday], we played today. We played in the Amazon, they played in a location where they don't have to travel much. We've got to do it the tough way, so we're going to do it the tough way."
Bradley said the U.S. wouldn't have it any other way.
"That's who we are," he said. "We talk all the time about what we're like on the hardest day and when the spotlight comes on brightest. When the biggest tests come, what are we like? How do we respond in the difficult moments?
"Certainly disappointed that we don't finish off the job, but that's soccer. Very cruel game sometimes."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun