MANAUS, Brazil – Give Cristiano Ronaldo 10 seconds, and he’ll make a memory to last a lifetime.
The United States knew that all too well last December, when they drew Ronaldo and his Portuguese teammates in Group G at the World Cup. They knew it all week in the Amazon, when journalists hounded them on how they could possibly stop the superstar striker, even if he was hobbling on a bum knee worn out from ruling Europe since last fall.
And they knew it in the locker room at the Arena Amazonia here on Sunday night, moments after Ronaldo wrested away the Americans’ best chance at surviving the Group of Death with one stab of his foot, a cross that cut straight through American hearts and to the back post of doom.
Optimists will say that the Americans’ 2-2 draw against Portugal was something of a step in the right direction, and that it’s a positive the US are still unbeaten in Brazil when some thought they’d be eliminated by now.
But realists know the deal. Despite taking an uppercut just moments into the game, the US didn’t scratch and claw their way back into this one. They drove nails for the rest of the night, pounding on Ronaldo, midfielder Raul Meireles and the rest of the bunch for the next 80-plus minutes, all up until the final strike of the clock.
And therein was the biggest problem. They loosened their death grip on Ronaldo for an instant and he pounced in the fifth minute of stoppage time, driving a cross from the right flank to the awaiting head of midfielder Silvestre Varela, who had surged in front of center back Geoff Cameron when the result seemed written in stone.
Had Ronaldo winced on that bad knee, stumbled or perhaps laced the cross two feet higher, the US would be celebrating the most unlikely scenario imaginable: through to the knockout round with one game to spare.
But instead, the final whistle blew before the next ball was kicked, and now the Americans face perilous possibilities heading into their final game against Germany on Thursday (noon ET, ESPN). A draw or a win will send them through, but if they lose in Recife their fate effectively falls on whether or not Ghana can beat Portugal (noon ET, ESPN2), and how badly.
“We’re American,” forward Clint Dempsey told reporters after the draw. “We like to do things the hard way.”
The Americans showed moments of both brilliance and blunder against Portugal, and they ultimately squandered a far better effort than they showed against Ghana in the opener. Midfielder Jermaine Jones scored on a blistering shot early in the second half and Dempsey added his second goal in as many games when a Graham Zusi cross caromed off his stomach in the 81st minute, a gut punch that must have felt as good as a kiss from Irina Shayk.
But they also flubbed other moments, most notably Cameron’s early gaffe on a fifth-minute goal from Nani and then the slip-up on Ronaldo late. The US bottled up the world’s best player for more than 90 minutes – Cameron even planted him with a hip-check in first-half stoppage time worthy of youth hockey camp back in Attleboro, Mass. – but it wasn’t enough.
They squandered a career-best performance by midfielder Kyle Beckerman and a second straight stellar outing from Jones, who cut down any of his remaining critics with one blast of this right foot in the 64th minute that put the Americans on a path that they thought would continue into July.
“We could taste it,” center back Matt Besler said. “We could taste the second round.”
Ever the optimist even in the face of his team’s late collapse, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann spun it forward. The US were given little chance by outsiders to survive this group, but still they hold their destiny in their hands if they can show up against Germany.
And four points through two games against Ghana and Portugal isn’t bad, right?
“If I was offered it a month ago, I probably would have taken it,” USSF president Sunil Gulati said. “If I was offered that at the 94-minute mark today, I wouldn’t take it.”
The Americans’ turnaround to Recife is a short one, beginning with a late-night flight on Sunday back to their home base in São Paulo. Highlights of Ronaldo’s moment of brilliance and the US collapse will play on televisions here long after they’re back on the ground, and fans back in the States will steel themselves again to see if there’s one more historic moment left to be made in Recife.
Ten seconds. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
“We’ve got one foot in the door,” Klinsmann said, “we just have to drag the other foot through.”