BY RYAN FLEMING
After spending four days in the splendor of the Amazon jungle, we made the trek back to Manaus for the much anticipated USA/Portugal match. The U.S. had to be feeling confident after a 2-1 win over Ghana was validated by Ghana’s 2-2 draw with group favorites, Germany.
Once again, the Americans were well represented in bodies and in voice. Red, white and blue blanketed much of the Arena Amazonia and pro-U.S. chants rang out from well before kickoff through the bitter end.
Portugal appeared to be buoyed by a smaller, but still boisterous contingent. However, after conducting my own highly scientific research I concluded that a vast portion of these fans were women from all corners of the globe decked out in Cristiano Ronaldo’s #7 jersey. That on its own wouldn’t be terribly problematic if it weren’t for the fact that every time Ronaldo touched the ball it sounded like a throng of teenage girls squealing at a “One Direction” concert (not that I’ve been, but use your imagination). Adding hilarity to the situation was Ronaldo’s largely inept showing for the first 94:30 of the game – turning the ball over, mishitting passes, and air mailing shots into row Z.
The start of the game was the antithesis of the U.S.-Ghana match. Five minutes in we found ourselves in arrears as a flubbed clearance by Geoff Cameron served Portugal a goal on a silver platter. The deficit may have served as a catalyst for the offense as the Americans would go on to outshoot the Portuguese 9-8 in the first half. Led by Clint Dempsey in the role of sole striker, the U.S. created several dangerous chances but were not able to cash in on any of them.
As the second half began I remember thinking that given the 1-0 deficit I’d happily settle for a draw. Little did I know that in a matter of 50 minutes I’d despise such a result.
A major player in this game wasn’t dressed in the colors of either nation. Rather, it imposed its presence in the form of oppressive heat and suffocating humidity. Around the 40-minute mark the referee stopped the game briefly for a water break. It was a true test of fitness and one that would swing the game in favor of the U.S. as the second half developed.
One of the joys of following our team lies in the truth that, while not terribly talented, we usually play to a level that is greater than the sum of our individual parts. This was never more apparent than the final 30 minutes of the match.
An MLS-laden roster was not only playing on par with top players from leagues in England, Spain, Portugal and Turkey, but in many cases superseding them. Jermaine Jones ripped a scintillating strike to tie the game 1-1 and, if taken by Messi or Ronaldo, would’ve been the talk of the tournament.
The introduction of Sounder DeAndre Yedlin gave Portugal fits on their tired and aging left flank. Fewer than ten minutes after his introduction Yedlin played an integral role in our second goal. His quick burst down the wing and dangerous cross led to the go-ahead goal by Dempsey. Another goal in the final ten minutes – surely we’d done it again! The stadium came unglued, spurred on by delirious Americans.
Part of the beauty of this sport lies in the fact that it can take you on an emotional rollercoaster – from despair to hope, from elation to misery – in a matter of seconds. All four of these emotions were present on Sunday night in the Amazon. The unfortunate reality is the one experienced last is the overwhelming feeling we take home with us. A gut punch – that’s what those final thirty seconds felt like.
Soccer is called “the beautiful game” for a reason. It also has a sinister side that will cause you to rue its existence…yet we always come back for more.