The United States were approximately 30 seconds from qualifying outright for the Round of 16 at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil when Cristiano Ronaldo's blistering cross found Portuguese winger Varela's head and subsequently, the back of the net. Three points become one point, and for now the United States's dreams of reaching the Round of 16 have been put on hold. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver estimates that the USA's odds of advancing to the group stage are 76 percent, second highest in the group behind current group leader - and Thursday's opponent - Germany.
Forced to replace striker Jozy Altidore after a hamstring injury, USMNT head coach Jürgen Klinsmann inserted Graham Zusi into the starting lineup and left Clint Dempsey alone up top in a 4-5-1. Portugal on the other hand had to deal with three missing starters from their first match with Germany thanks to Pepe's red card suspension and injuries to Fabio Coentrao and Rui Patricio.
Within five minutes Portugal took an early lead. A botched clearance by centerback Geoff Cameron inside the 18 handed Manchester United-based right back Nani a gift a mere eight yards from net with no defenders around him. With a helpless Tim Howard on the ground, Nani slammed the ball into the roof of the net and put Portugal ahead.
Despite conceding the early goal, the Americans looked like the better side for much of the first half. Ronaldo's refusal to get back on defense enabled Fabian Johnson to cause havoc on the flank, helping to generate a few United States chances. Portugal had to make an early sub, replacing aged striker Helder Postiga for striker Eder, who was largely ineffective throughout the match. The Manaus humidity seemed to be impacting the Portuguese more, who are one of the oldest teams in the tournament.
Portugal's other great chance in the first half came in stoppage time when a normally-reliable Tim Howard was only able to deflect a Nani long-range effort onto the near post. Howard had to stumble onto his feet to push a follow-up Eder chip over the crossbar with his fingertips.
Portugal made a halftime sub, bringing on defensive midfielder William Carvalho for left back Andre Almeida. Fabian Johnson kept terrorizing Portugal on the right, and in the 55th minute the United States nearly capitalized on one of his runs when a cutback pass by Johnson found an open Michael Bradley just outside the six yard box. Bradley tried side-footing ball into the net, but it was blocked on the line by defender Ricardo Costa. In the 64th minute a Graham Zusi corner was cleared to an open Jermaine Jones. Jones took a touch to his right to find space and unleashed a bending, thunderous strike that froze the entire Portugal defense (including Portuguese goalkeeper Beto) en route to the right corner of the net. It was one of the great World Cup goals in U.S. history, and a treat for Jones who had been one of the team's best players on the night.
(Sidenote: Check out the Univision call of Jones' goal. One of the best that you will ever hear.)
Klinsmann doubled down on attacking the right flank, bringing on 21 year-old speedster DeAndre Yedlin in the 72nd minute. Nine minutes later, Klinsmann's gamble paid off when Yedlin sped to the byline before hitting a cutback pass. The pass was deflected before finding Bradley. Bradley's attempted was blocked, but the ball fell to Graham Zusi. Zusi hit a soft cross that an open Dempsey knocked into the net with his abdomen. The Portuguese cried for offsides, but Dempsey had the presence of mind to keep himself onside during the chaos in the area. With 10 minutes plus stoppage time to go, the United States looked like they were going to take first place in the Group of Death.
A lesson that can be taken from this World Cup is that the best in the world just need a little bit of space and a few seconds to change the course of a match. Lionel Messi nailed a 91st minute 25 foot strike after being shut down by Iran all match, and Croatia gave Brazilian wunderkind Neymar a few square feet of grass in front of the 18 yard box before the Barça star punished them with an equalizer. Reigning Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo had been quiet for much of the match Sunday. He was clearly hobbled by his tendinosis injury, and the USA did a great job in having a defender shadow the Real Madrid star all match. But in the 95th minute a poor Michael Bradley pass lead to a turnover, and the ball found itself at Ronaldo's feet. With DaMarcus Beasley giving him the space needed, he delivered a terrific cross into the danger area. Trailed by Fabian Johnson and lost by Geoff Cameron in the area, a speedy Silvestre Varela headed the cross into the back of the net. The whistle blew seconds later, and one of the Americans' best performances ever in a World Cup match was rewarded with only a single point.
Despite the crushing ending, the United States are still in prime position to make it to the Round of 16. A win or draw Thursday puts the United States through. Thanks to goal difference Portugal is all but out of the competition, but a Ghana win versus Portugal mixed with a United States loss of two goals or more will knock the United States out of the competition.