The United States took another step toward progressing to the 2014 FIFA World Cup knockout stage with a gripping 2-2 draw against Portugal in Manaus, Brazil.
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi was again involved in late-game heroics, assisting Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal in the 81st minute, before Silvestre Varela headed a 95th-minute equalizer with the final touch of the match. Nani had fired Portugal into an early lead, but Jermaine Jones’ sublime 64th-minute goal set the stage for a thrilling finish.
Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler played the full match and Zusi was replaced in the 91st minute, marking the first time since 2002 that two players from the same MLS club started together for the U.S. in a World Cup game.
U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann employed a 4-2-3-1 formation at kickoff, a departure from the midfield diamond and two-man strike force used in each of the Americans’ last four matches. Clint Dempsey took the central striker role and Zusi entered a five-man midfield that upheld a more defensive posture.
Portugal surged ahead just five minutes into the match. Defender Geoff Cameron failed to clear a cross into the box from Miguel Veloso, and Nani blasted high into the net past goalkeeper Tim Howard.
The U.S. settled into the match after conceding the early goal, with Zusi contributing in the buildup to several shots. Dempsey curled a 22-yard free kick inches over the crossbar in the 13th minute and had a close range effort saved by Beto four minutes later.
At the half hour mark, Zusi created space on the right edge of the box and fed Dempsey near the penalty spot, but his shot was deflected out for a corner kick. Jones, Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson all tried their luck from long range, but to no avail.
Howard made an excellent save just before halftime to deny Portugal from doubling its lead. Nani’s 30-yard effort pinged off the post and back into play, and the Everton goalkeeper tapped Eder’s rebound attempt just over the crossbar.
In the opening 15 minutes of the second half, Besler blocked a left-footed shot from Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, cleared a low cross into the box from Veloso and made a vital tackle at midfield to break up a Portugal counter attack.
Zusi ignited one of the Americans’ best attacks of the match in the 55th minute, sliding a through ball to the overlapping Johnson down the right flank. Johnson squared it to Bradley on the edge of the six-yard area, but defender Ricardo Costa made a crucial block on the goal line.
The U.S. continued to pressure, and Jones produced a breathtaking equalizer in the 64th minute. Zusi’s corner kick was headed out of the penalty area to the feet of the Besiktas midfielder, who took a touch before curling a terrific right-footed shot beyond the outstretched arms of Beto and into the far right corner of the net.
Besler again kept Portugal at bay in the 77th minute, sliding to prevent Joao Moutinho’s through ball from reaching Ronaldo, before his Sporting Kansas City teammate helped the U.S. go in front.
Zusi delivered his second World Cup assist in as many matches with nine minutes left. Substitute DeAndre Yedlin flashed a low cross into the penalty area that deflected to Bradley in a central position. The Toronto FC midfielder found Zusi with plenty of space on the left side of the six-yard area, and the Sporting Kansas City playmaker calmly squared it to Dempsey who bundled home from close range.
However, Portugal provided one last twist in the tail as Ronaldo’s cross from the right wing was nodded home by second half substitute Varela in the 95th minute.
The draw puts the U.S. level on points with group leaders Germany but behind on goal differential. The Americans are three points clear of both Ghana and Portugal and must draw their final match against Germany to advance to the Round of 16. Even a loss to Germany could see the U.S. progress, depending on how many goals are scored by each team in the final pair of Group G matches. Both games will kick off concurrently at 11 a.m. CT Thursday.
Besler earned his 19th cap, and the U.S. is 13-1-4 when he starts in central defense. Zusi received his 25th cap and now has six assists in his international career. He is one of nine players to have multiple assists in the 2014 World Cup.