It should be said that, up until the last bit, the U.S. side was enjoying the fruits of another charmed game. They were up 2-1 on Portugal and down to the 95th minute, just a few seconds away from the final whistle. Fevered visions of a meaningless Thursday match with Germany had American fans high on unfamiliar hope -- until the U.S. side's luck ran out, and they learned what the margin of error is when playing against Cristiano Ronaldo's team.
Star U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley misplayed a ball that eventually found its way to Portugal's hero, who struck a crossing shot and struck it clean. The ball curled off his feared right foot and journeyed on a flawless arc to the head of Varela, who outran three Americans to strike a game-tying header some 30 seconds before the final whistle. Total bummer, but about right as far as the final score goes.
A desperate Portuguese side missing three starters turned to Ronaldo, and he gutted through a knee injury to punish a U.S. side that couldn't afford the crucial mistakes made throughout the match. Geoff Cameron, the main defender Varela outran, made a disastrous clearance in the fifth minute that served up a gimme goal to Nani. Bradley, now two games into a run of substandard form, wasted a gimme goal in the 55th minute. When the other team has Ronaldo, mistakes like that are a roll of loaded dice, and the U.S. made a series of them in the game's closing moments. They learned that the margin for error when playing against Ronaldo is so small, it might as well not even exist.
Still, even though the natural reaction to such a brutal ending would suggest otherwise, the team and its growing fanbase remain quite lucky thus far. The U.S. has four points with one game left, and only a loss can expose them to (mostly favorable) tiebreaker scenarios. Then again, they're playing Germany. Then again, thanks to coach Jürgen Klinsmann, they're finally riding something other than the doomed ideals and traditional American virtues -- grit, grit and some more grit on the side -- that failed the U.S. side in the past. Mistakes are understandably hard to live with, but this is a national team still learning how to win at this level. What's promising is that a German coach's tactical brilliance is the reason fans were ever in a position to assume a win over Portugal.
Sure, running a team with zero top-flight international players is a losing proposition, but Klinsmann doesn't care. Against a Ghanaian side that ranks youngest among the field, the U.S. was mostly overmatched, but picked up three points thanks to a goal scored off the foot and head of two substitutes called on by Klinsmann. Against a depleted Portugal side and sans injured forward Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann went all-in on the midfield by playing Graham Zusi, and a U.S. offense that was mostly useless in the Ghana game played on even terms with a side fielding Ronaldo. The wrenching nature of that Portugal draw does not lessen its value as a sign of progress -- especially in light of the team's upcoming match with Germany, which already exists in the shadow of the Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón.
Also known as the Non-Aggression Pact of Gijón, it was a match between West Germany and Austria at the 1982 World Cup -- a match marred by collusion between the two sides to ensure their mutual advancement past group play. Klinsmann dismissed any concerns of formal collusion this Thursday, saying, "We will go to Recife and we will give everything to beat Germany. That is our goal." How the match will actually play out is still anyone's guess, since both teams know an uneventful draw is mutually beneficial. But should either side convert on one of its inevitable chances -- Germany in particular -- any sort of informal détente will be set aside and a game unfavorable to the U.S. will begin.
There is little point in belaboring the superiority of the German side, whose status as group favorites remained intact even after a ridiculously-unfair string of injuries left them without forward Mario Gomez, left back Marcel Schmelzer and, most painfully of all, Bundesliga assist automaton Marcos Reus. Even with that run of cruel luck, Die Mannschaft's roster is still loaded with the international-league stars that the U.S. lacks. A high-stakes game between Germany and the U.S. ends with sad Americans in spades. Klinsmann's tactical handling of the team -- not the team's American birthright -- is what has saved them from such a scenario so far. This is progress worth celebrating regardless of what comes next. Just ask a fan of the already-eliminated English side.
Nick Hornby, an English novelist who is clearly well-versed in the dark comedy of being an English soccer fan, argued that the failure of his country's side is a function of romanticizing English soccer despite its dubious legacy. That sentiment was echoed by Gavin Cleaver at Deadspin, who lamented England's reliance on faded stars of a would-be golden generation; their outright arrogance disguised as national pride; and an individualistic tactical style out-of-step with the game's collaborative ideal. Cleaver also recognizes the manifestation of paranoid xenophobia among certain strains of English fandom. Any U.S. fan bemoaning a draw with Portugal should remember that rooting for the U.S. side was once, at best, a poor imitation of the near-inevitable self-loathing felt by the English who root for England.
No matter what happens against Germany, cheering the U.S. no longer has that "Time Is A Flat Circle" vibe. This year's side may be overmatched to an extent, but it's not a golden generation with an uncertain future. Klinsmann is building toward the 2018 World Cup -- the one he'll enter with a team he's cultivated since his hiring in 2011. The 2018 World Cup is the one that could hurt in a way American fans don't yet know.
This World Cup is a freeroll that your German savior is playing for all he can get. Embrace it, and save the heartache for when rooting interest comes with the burden of real expectations. Once a fanbase takes on that burden, it never ever gets any lighter.