MANAUS, Brazil – Make no mistake about it. The United States played Portugal, and Cristiano Ronaldo off the pitch.
Following Nani’s goal in the fourth minute off a Geoff Cameron miscue, the U.S. dominated every aspect of play in the sweltering jungle. Goals from Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey put the U.S. up 2-1 until just a minute remaining in stoppage time. That’s when Varela broke the hearts of Americans with a diving header past Tim Howard.
A 2-2 draw is as unlucky a result as it comes, but the U.S. is far from being out of this tournament.
Thursday, the U.S. travels to Recife to take on Germany, needing a tie to guarantee a spot in the second round. These are three things we know going into that match …
1. The plan worked.
The U.S. brought on Graham Zusi in place of striker Jozy Altiodre, opting to play with five midfielders instead of two forwards. Geoff Cameron’s botched clearance aside, Portugal struggled to capitalize on any opportunities going forward.
Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t able to generate anything going forward thanks in great part to the efforts of Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman. That is until he connected with Varela for the final goal of the match.
The U.S. defensive duo shadowed Ronaldo throughout the game, never straying more than 10 yards from the 2013 Ballon d’Or winner. When Ronaldo touched the ball, Jones and Beckerman were there, forcing his passes back.
The icing on Jones’ cake came in the 64th, when he rifled a brilliant strike past the helpless gaze of the Portuguese keeper.
2. Clint Dempsey can’t play striker alone.
At least not in the way most associate a single striker formation. Dempsey likes to turn and run at defenders, while typically a player in that position is supposed to hold the ball up for wingers running past. It took a few minutes for Dempsey and the U.S. to find a rhythm and cadence, but when they finally did, Dempsey excelled.
Dempsey took pressure off the midfield when needed, and more importantly kept the ball on attack, something the U.S. struggled to do in its first game against Ghana.
3. Fabian Johnson was the best attacking threat.
The offensive spectacle didn’t come from Ronaldo, it wasn’t Dempsey, it wasn’t Bradley or Nani.
It was right back Fabian Johnson who terrorized the left flank of Portugal, cutting up Raul Meireles and swinging in seeking balls throughout the match. The best came midway through the second half, when Johnson slotted a ball to a wide open Michael Bradley, who failed to put his finish home with a wide open net.
But Johnson came back in the 81st minute, setting up what looked like the game winner with an entry ball into the 18-yard-box. Johnson’s ball was knocked around before finding Zusi wide, who sent another cross into the path of Dempsey.