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The Associated Press USA fans in Houston react to Portugal's last second goal to tie the game during the Houston Dynamo's viewing party of the World Cup Group G match.

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'A cruel game': Glory snatched from US at last second

Monday, June 23, 2014 - Updated: 10:21 AM

It feels worse than it should.

The United States men's national soccer team was close, so painstakingly close, to stamping their ticket into the knockout stage of this World Cup with a game still to play in Group G. Clint Dempsey's tap-in with his stomach in the 81st minute gave the U.S. a one-goal lead over Portugal, and all of America was waiting for Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana to blow the final whistle, signal the end of the game, and put the U.S. into the round of 16 regardless of Thursday's result against Germany.

Then Michael Bradley lost the ball in midfield.

Then the ball ended up on the feet of the world's reigning player of the year, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, who unleashed a wicked cross into the penalty area.

Then U.S. defender Geoff Cameron barely lost track of charging Portugal winger Silvestre Varela, who slammed his header past a defenseless U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard.

A 2-2 draw. A result let slip away on the last meaningful kick of the game. A gut punch.

It certainly feels that way now, and maybe by Thursday afternoon when the final whistle blows against Germany, it'll feel even worse. But, beyond the stomach-churning roller coaster of the final 45 minutes Sunday evening in the steamy Amazon jungle outpost of Manaus, Brazil, there needs to be a silver lining.

And it's pretty simple: Varela's last-second thunderbolt might've stalled the celebration and forced U.S. fans to sit through 90 tooth-grinding minutes in Recife against Germany, but Team USA still sits in the catbird seat to do what the likes of Spain and England have already failed to do -- qualify for the final 16.

The math is fairly basic. After Sunday night, Germany and the U.S. sit atop Group G on four points each -- Germany leads on goal difference -- with Ghana and Portugal chasing from behind on a point apiece. You get three points for a win, one point for a draw, so it's pretty easy -- a draw between the Yanks and Die Mannschaft on Thursday and both teams are through, no matter what Ghana and Portugal do to each other.

Oh, and not to cast glares of conspiracy on that squeaky-clean bastion of sporting ethics, FIFA, but U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann coached his native Germany at the 2006 World Cup, and the Germans' current coach, Joachim Loew, was Klinsmann's top assistant -- though there's long been rumors that when Klinsmann was leading Germany, it was really Loew who pulled the strings.

So, there's pragmatism and blue-eyed optimism out of the way. Because the rest of Sunday was enough to turn my insides into a collection of furious hummingbirds trying to peck their way out of me.

Five minutes in, there was panic. A flubbed clearance by Cameron landed right at the feet of Portugese winger Nani for an easy goal, and the U.S. was forced to chase the game.

And chase they did. With the exception of a few Portugese thrusts forward that prompted a few stellar saves from Howard, the U.S. laid siege to the Portugese half of the field, but all their shots were scrubbed wide or high of Portugal keeper Beto.

Early in the second half, the equalizer looked all but assured when Bradley pounced on a cross, but Portugal's Ricardo Costa cleared it off the goal line with his knee. The grumbles continued.

Jermaine Jones ended them a few minutes later, his curling beauty of a strike tying things up in the 64th minute. At that point, a draw would've been wholeheartedly embraced by anyone in red, white and blue.

Then came the 81st minute, and the cross from 21-year-old sub DeAndre Yedlin that found its way to Zusi, who knocked it back across the mouth of goal where U.S. captain Dempsey -- who barely stayed onside -- nudged the ball into the net with the elastic band of his shorts.

In all the glee, in all the breathless waiting for the final whistle, the world's best player made his only significant contribution in an otherwise terrible game and the Americans got caught ball-watching on the back end.

Maybe it was fitting, after Dempsey scored with his stomach, that the U.S. team ended the game getting kick in its collective gut.

In a postgame interview with ESPN, Bradley put it simply.

"That's soccer," he said. "It can be a cruel game sometimes."

Thursday at noon, there are 90 more cruel minutes to go.

I'm not sure the hummingbirds will stay inside my stomach this time.

ADAM SHINDER occasionally rants about sports in a quasi-coherent manner. Lob rotten fruit at him on Twitter at twitter.com/RecorderShinder

     

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