U.S. sees cruel side of the game

By A Contributor

Knowledgeable soccer fans understood the horror of it, surely.

But if you don’t follow the game on a day-to-day basis, and want some perspective on just how needless it was for the United States to get hit in the mouth with Portugal grabbing a last-gasp goal for a 2-2 draw Sunday night, well…

Try this: Imagine a boxing title fight.

One of the fighters has dominated all the later rounds, leads by a zillion points on the judges’ scorecards…and with 10 seconds left to the final bell, he turns toward his girlfriend in the crowd and winks.

As he does, his dazed and groggy opponent — barely able to stand — unleashes one last wild haymaker and knocks the celebrating “winner” into the third row.

There, that’s how it felt, watching Silvestre Varela head home a cross in the last second of the game — with several U.S. defenders jogging aimlessly along behind him — and knocking the Americans flat on their backs.

And oh by the way, that sudden sucker punch in the final breath of this match could possibly deny the U.S. a ticket out of the World Cup group stage — a spot that seemed an absolute cinch just seconds from the end.

A victory over Portugal would have launched the Yanks into the elite round of 16, remember.

But now with a draw…oh, you can go read all the math involved in surviving Group G somewhere else.

The point is that it should have been a done deal.

Second-half goals by Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey (with Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi involved in both), had overturned a 1-0 halftime deficit by the 81st minute and all that was necessary was to see it out against the weary Portuguese.

The United States was in complete command…until committing a weekend beer-league error in sight of the finish line.

The ball was bobbling around near midfield with just a few ticks remaining when U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley lost it.

The first mistake was that Bradley should never have allowed the ball to be stolen.

Surrounded by Portuguese players with the seconds ticking away, he should have booted the thing a mile downfield.

Time would have run out before Portugal could have regrouped.

But Bradley had a brain cramp, which brings us to the second ghastly error.

In situations like this, any team defending a one-goal lead in the final seconds has five, six or more players stationed back in its own box - so that desperate punts or crosses toward goal meet a wall of heads, feet, backsides, whatever.

Now, do you recall our story about that silly boxer who couldn’t wait 10 more seconds to celebrate, peeked at his sweetie — and got knocked into Tomorrowland?

When the ball skittered away from Bradley, it wound up on the right side of the field and at the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo — recently voted the best player in world.

Ronaldo has a bum knee and he’d been a virtual spectator all night, but he still had the talent to whip in one more useful cross.

And that, sadly, is when the entire U.S side took a collective peek toward their girlfriends or pals or the thousands of celebrants waving American flags.

The soccer version of that error turned out to be wandering away from the goal, drifting toward midfield when Bradley had dribbled in that direction — as though this were just the 25th minute of the match instead of the final few seconds.

An entire team went mentally “walkabout” and got caught out of position, allowing Varela to run right past them.

A heartbeat later, he dived to meet Ronaldo’s lovely cross and rocketed it past the helpless goalie Tim Howard.

Besides making every American soccer fan almost instantly ill, this desperation goal was totally, completely, almost ludicrously avoidable.

Five or six players were at fault (starting with Bradley), but none more than Omar Gonzalez — a central defender who plays for the MLS Los Angeles Galaxy.

Big, strong and full of energy to deal with some exhausted opponents, Gonzalez had been sent into the game just for the final minutes, instructed to stay back and deal with balls fired into the box in front of Howard.

He should have been permanently stationed close enough to the goalie to exchange casserole recipes in a stadium of screaming fans.

So where was Omar?

He’d trotted 15-20 yards upfield with everyone else just before Bradley lost the ball, and was nowhere near his assigned post when Ronaldo lined up for Portugal’s last cross, its final throw of the dice.

Soccer coaches, U.S. spectators in Brazil and savvy fans watching on TV all across America must all have been screeching “GET BACK!” as Gonzalez and his teammates failed to react while Varela kept running.

You could see the disaster coming, almost in slow motion.

And then it was over.

You know, it would feel totally unfair if the U.S. — having been stuck in the toughest group at the World Cup — could play so well for so long against quality opposition, and still be eliminated.

Despite those rookie mistakes at the finish…it would.

“Sometimes the game can be cruel,” said Howard.

Amen to that.

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