MANAUS, Brazil -- The referee’s stopwatch was 39 seconds from expiring.
The U.S. World Cup team was about to eliminate Portugal to clinch a spot in the Round of 16.
Everyone at Arena Amazonia and in living rooms and bars from Miami to Lisbon surely figured an American celebration was moments from erupting.
But then, Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been frustrated for 94 minutes and held scoreless for two games, got his $80 million feet on the ball and broke America’s hearts.
He calmly gathered a ball U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley lost in a scrum, and sent a textbook cross to Varela, who headed in the equalizing goal just before the final whistle.
The scoreboard read: USA 2, Portugal 2.
But it felt like a loss for an American team that had scrapped so hard and rallied from an early one-goal deficit on a hot, steamy night. Just 15 minutes earlier, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann jumped so high in jubilation after Clint Dempsey’s apparent game-winning goal that his belly showed.
“Football’s cruel sometimes,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who had a spectacular save earlier to keep the Americans’ hopes alive. “We had one foot in the door.”
Said U.S. defender Matt Besler: “We like to do this the hard way. It’s the American way.”
Klinsmann, the eternal optimist, saw it this way: “It was a thriller, real exciting match. Everyone who had [the] chance to be in Manaus will talk about this for a long time. Before all this started, if you had said four points [in the] first two games, we would have been very happy. But that goal last second, when it could have been six points, it’s a bummer you have to swallow.”
A victory would have meant six points and a guaranteed berth in the next round. Now, the Americans are tied with Germany atop Group G with four points apiece heading into their final group match Thursday in Recife.
The United States can still advance with a win over Germany, a tie with Germany, a Ghana-Portugal tie, or even with a loss to Germany depending on goal differential against Ghana and Portugal.
Klinsmann, a former star and coach for the German team, was asked three times whether there was any chance he and German coach Joachim Loew would collude to tie Thursday’s match and ensure both teams advance. Absolutely not, he said.
“You’re talking about a game that is decades away,” he said, referring to a 1982 World Cup match in which West Germany and Austria agreed to stop playing hard after Germany went up 1-0 because that score ensured both teams would advance. “The U.S. is known to give everything they have until the end of the game. We have that fighting spirit, that energy, determination to do well every game. We are very ambitious to beat Germany, get seven points and be in the driver’s seat.”
What if Loew called and asked him to tie, he was asked.
“There is no such call,” he said. “Jogi’s doing his job, I’m doing mine. No time for friendship calls. It’s all business.”
Klinmann said he was proud of his team’s valiant effort Sunday. Dempsey, looking like a prize fighter with a black eye and broken nose, was a hero for the second game in a row with what appeared to be the game-winning goal in the 80th minute. He trapped a Graham Zusi ball with his stomach and knocked it in.
The U.S. team had fallen behind early after a defensive blunder by defender Geoff Cameron on a routine clearance that led to a goal for Portugal’s Nani in the fifth minute.
Under pressure to get on the scoreboard, the United States got aggressive, maintained possession of the ball for much of the first half, had several scoring chances, but was unable to capitalize.
Bradley had a close-range shot in the 55thminute, but Portugal defender Ricardo Costa made a spectacular goal-line play.
The equalizing goal finally came in the 64th minute from midfielder Jermaine Jones, the gritty German-American who cranked in a shot from about 25 yards.
Even before the national anthems, about 10,000 U.S. fans chanted: “I Believe That We Will Win!”
But the louder cheers and chants were for Portugal. The Portuguese fans were joined by Brazilians, who sided with the team that shares their language and history.
The town was in a festive mood all weekend. Main roads and narrow alleyways were decorated with yellow and green streamers, and the historic downtown and port district were hopping.
After the endless talk about the weather, the conditions in this Amazonian rain forest town were no more oppressive than a typical Miami summer day: 88 degrees (felt like 95) with 62 percent humidity.
It was uncomfortable enough, though, that Argentine referee Nestor Pitana called a water break in the 38th minute.
The U.S. team was without starting forward Jozy Altidore, who strained a left hamstring and watched from a stadium suite. Rather than replace Altidore with one of the other forwards, Klinsmann opted to go with five midfielders and employ Dempsey as the lone forward.
The extra midfielders did a good job keeping it away from Ronaldo, ganging up on him and getting in his way.
But they let him loose when it mattered most and paid the price.
“Well that hurt! Really hurt!” tweeted U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya of Weston. “But we keep our heads up and move onto the next game! It’s in our hands! We stand united!”