Twenty-five seconds. 25.
One last run to the corner flag.
One last hold by the goalkeeper.
One last throw-in.
A clearance. A foul. A goal kick.
A pass to anything in white.
A pass to the guy holding a boom mic out of bounds.
The United States was all of those things away from conquering the Group of Death and advancing to the next round. With one simple run – with no overlap and no support – Portugal ripped it all away from the Americans at the death, and the Group of Death still looms over the U.S. like a thunderstorm that has made all kinds of noise but not yet dropped rain.
With that last break of play, the United States lost its real control.
For whatever reason, the Americans kept pushing instead of just running to corner flag, and Michael Bradley’s giveaway turned into a pass to Cristiano Ronaldo. Never mind the ball shouldn’t have been in the U.S. half at this point, but none of the back line – and there were three central defenders on the field – felt the need to run alongside Varela, who had been librarian quiet to that point.
As it turns out, the No. 4 team in the world will score if it isn’t defended. Varela smashed a header past a helpless Tim Howard, and now the United States is at the mercy of the Portuguese.
Instead of seeing out that final spell and not having to so much as glance at the Portugal-Ghana game, the Yanks quite likely will need it to advance out of the group stage.
A mere 25 seconds away from guaranteeing a place in the knockout phase turned into needing a result against Germany, the No. 2 team in the world.
The ideal scenario for the United States was two wins, which would have rendered the Germany game meaningless for advancing’s sake, and that scenario was less than half a minute away.
Should the United States beat Germany on Thursday, none of this will matter and Portugal’s stoppage time goal will turn into a wasn’t-that-something moment that half of us forget.
But not now.
That goal turned Portugal from defeated power to ally at a distance. Because of Portugal’s horrible goal differential, it would have to thoroughly defeat Ghana and have Germany do the same to the United States to win the tiebreaker for the second spot.
For this reason, the United States will be rooting for Portugal in the next game, because a Portugal win likely means the U.S. will advance, even if it loses against Germany. (A 2-0 U.S. loss to Germany means Portugal would need to beat Ghana by three goals to take the last spot out of Group G, and with the way the Black Stars have played through two games, that doesn’t seem likely.)
That last run means the U.S. could need Portugal.
Talented, fast, mercurial Portugal.
Finicky, unreliable, underachieving Portugal.
Thursday will be a nervous day. Fans in four countries will be looking in at their team’s game with an eye on the other, hoping and praying it’ll be all right after 90 minutes.
In the United States, if it isn’t all right after 90 minutes, and Ghana is dancing at the Yanks’ expense for a third consecutive time, we’ll always remember 25 seconds away.
The U.S. trapped its best case and let it wrangle free.
Hopefully, it won't matter. But if the next 90 minutes turn worry into horror, it will be all that does.