|Gavin and the boys representing the red, white, and blue before Sunday's Portugal matchup.|
While I enjoyed Manaus and my experience in the Amazon, there was really only one reason I was in the city: Sunday's USA v. Portugal match.
After the euphoria of the US victory over Ghana in the opening match, it had been tough to wait almost another week to support the boys in red, white, and blue. There were some great games in the meantime (Iran nearly stealing a point from Argentina, Costa Rica shocking Italy, and Germany's pulsating draw with Ghana) yet when I returned from the Amazon on Saturday night, it was clear that Uncle Sam's Army had descended on Manaus to face the next challenge: Portugal.
The US had much at stake in this "Rumble in the Jungle". Because of Germany's 2-2 draw with Ghana the night before, a victory would mean a (once-unfathomable) chance to top the so-called "Group of Death" and secure a spot in the next round. Portugal, after a tough loss to Germany, needed a strong showing to have any chance of advancing. In 2002, the American underdogs had kick-started a run to the quarterfinals with a victory over heavily favored Portugal, and since that time the US has come too far as a soccer nation to be so easily written off again. While the US team had gained confidence from its opening match victory, Portugal's beating at the hands of Germany had left them without volatile defender Pepe (red-carded for an idiotic headbutt) and
several more players lost to injury. But Portugal had the one weapon that can change any game: Cristiano Ronaldo. While he cut a frustrated figure against the Germans, he had recently managed a hat trick in a decisive qualifier against Sweden to carry his teammates into the World Cup.
Ranked fourth in the world, Portugal would be nothing to scoff at. However, as Team USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann pointed out ahead of the match: "The reason they call it the 'Group of Death' is because we're in it, too."
* * *
While I've had fun here in Brazil meeting new people from around the world, I also had the chance to see some old friends as well. Two Naval Academy classmates, Flo and Dave, had made their way down from California to follow the US team. While we missed each other at the first US game in Natal, we met up in Manaus at the Praça do Eldorado, right outside the Arena da Amazônia, to partake in the pregame festivities with legions of other USA fans. After five years since I last seen them, it was great to catch up with these guys and support the team together.
The pre-game mood was extraordinary; think of a "Sunday Funday" tailgate right before an NFL game. A large group of Americans spilled out of the square's main bar, which was adorned with American flags. The few Portugal fans who approached were quickly drowned out and sent away by our chants. We then commandeered the the DJ booth and began blasting very American motivational songs. We sang along to "Eye of the Tiger", "Thunderstruck", " Welcome to the Jungle", and "Born in the USA", interspersed with soccer songs. Between the singing and the beer, we had worked ourselves into a frenzy, and soon marched together to the stadium in a sea of red, white, and blue. But there was also a large Portuguese contingent inside, who seemed to sing their national anthem with as much intensity as we belted out the Star-Spangled Banner. Both teams' fans knew what was at stake tonight.
* * *
In contrast to our dream start against Ghana, the Portugal match could not have began in a worse fashion. Five minutes in, US defender Geoff Cameron missed a chance to clear a Portuguese cross. Manchester United star Nani was waiting on the back post and juked Tim Howard to the ground before blasting the ball into the upper net. While the Portuguese were naturally ecstatic, we hordes of USA fans behind the goal felt a massive letdown, and settled in for a back-and-forth match.
While American keeper Tim Howard kept us in the match with a string of superb saves, at the other end we peppered the Portuguese goal but couldn't find a breakthrough. Meanwhile, Ronaldo was being Ronaldo, moving at lightning speed with the ball at his feet. The USA largely kept him in check though, and we in the stands did our part by booing every time he touched the ball. The humid conditions took their toll. After the Portuguese withdrew an injured player in the 40th minute, the referee gave both teams a water break.
As the second half began, the USA attacked the goal behind which the majority of our fans sat. We brought the noise, and thought the first goal had finally come as Michael Bradley hit a shot with the keeper off his line, only to see it blocked at the last second by a Portuguese defender. We were still searching for that elusive first goal when Jermaine Jones, a player more known for his defensive prowess, curled a shot into the left side of the goal, with the Portuguese keeper frozen on his line. "FINALLY!" I screamed, as the typical flying beer and hugging celebration now commenced. It felt as if a huge burden had been lifted off our shoulders; momentum clearly on our side, the team continued its assault on the Portuguese goal, looking for the winner.
Ten minutes from the end, Graham Zusi sent a ball across the box and Clint Dempsey threw his body at it, scoring with his chest. "YESSSS!!!" I screamed amid wild celebrations with everyone around me. Nine minutes and stoppage time still remained though. Soaked in beer and sweat, we all locked arms and implored our guys to close it out. Dempsey subbed out for an extra defender to a standing ovation from the USA fans. Five minutes of stoppage time flashed on the screen, and the USA contingent lustily booed. "Where the hell did 5 minutes come from?" I thought, then refocused on the match. We were almost there...
The final minute. Suddenly we lost the ball at midfield, and Portugal worked it wide to Ronaldo, who raced down the sideline, knowing in seconds his World Cup dream would be over. "GET HIM!!!!" we screamed. He sent a perfect ball into the box, a ball that only a Ballon d'Or winner and best player in the world could produce, perfectly placed between the USA defenders. All it needed was one touch toward goal. Silvestre Varela ghosted in and planted a firm header into the back of the net. Portugal goal, with 94:30 on the clock. The USA had been 30 seconds from escaping the Group of Death with a game to spare, but couldn't hold it, even with an extra defender.
I have witnessed many painful losses for teams that I support, but this one definitely takes the cake. The mood in the stadium instantly deflated; our bubble was burst. As the whistle blew immediately after the goal, we slumped in our seats, lamenting our draw and starting to calculate how we might make the next round. After taking it to the Portuguese, it was frustrating to be in this position. We all agreed that the only reason we were not celebrating a victory was because of two stupid mistakes.
* * *
Back in the Praça do Eldorado for some post-game libations, the mood definitely lightened a bit as we consoled one another and drank and danced in the street. I would head next to Rio de Janeiro, ending my stretch of following the USA team in person. But I would leave them with a great sense of pride and happiness: despite being in the Group of Death, the USA has four points and a great chance to qualify for the next round. We control our own destiny, and lots of teams would love to be in our shoes. Germany will undoubtedly be a test, but if the US team's performance so far, and the craziness of this World Cup (in which the last two champions have now been eliminated in the Group Stage), then the Germans will have every reason to fear us as well.
I know the team and our fans traveling with them will give everything in Recife. USA! USA!