MANAUS, Brazil -- The U.S. national team had the knockout rounds in its sights. Then Cristiano Ronaldo delivered a gut punch in the form of an inch-perfect cross that substitute Varela nodded home in the fifth minute of stoppage time, to turn an apparent victory into a 2-2 draw.
Second-half goals from Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey looked set to steer the U.S. to a priceless victory, and overcome the shock of Nani's seventh minute opener. Instead, the Americans let the win slip from their hands, and now run the risk of missing out on the knockout stages entirely.
That's because Germany's 2-2 draw against Ghana has blown Group G completely wide open. All four teams are still alive and have everything to play for heading into the final round of matches.
Unlike its opening match against Ghana, the U.S. deserved better, dominating the match for long stretches. Yet it couldn't close the deal thanks to the magic of Ronaldo and Varela. Ronaldo was a peripheral figure for most of the night, and none of his trademark free kicks came close to hitting the target. Yet, he still managed to have an impact, even if it was at the death.
It was a match that will go down as a huge missed opportunity for the Americans, given how well they played on the night. It was also one that was the complete opposite of its opening game against Ghana.
On that occasion, the U.S. scored early and late, but suffered in the interim as the Black Stars dominated the match. In this match, it was Portugal who jumped on top thanks to Nani's goal and then saw the U.S. take over. The difference this time was the U.S. came back to take the lead, only for Portugal to have the last word.
In terms of what it needs in the next match, a draw against Germany will be enough to reach the second round. But a loss will then leave the U.S. vulnerable to the vagaries of goal difference.
Much of the pregame hype centered on who would replace injured striker Jozy Altidore. U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann opted for a 4-2-3-1 alignment with Graham Zusi starting in place of Altidore. To the surprise of no one, hobbled forward Cristiano Ronaldo was in the starting lineup, while defender Bruno Alves was deemed fit enough to start after battling a left thigh strain.
The U.S. got off to a nightmare start with Nani putting Portugal ahead in the seventh minute. Geoff Cameron's attempted clearance from a Miguel Veloso cross was shanked straight to the Portuguese winger, who had time to fake goalkeeper Tim Howard to the ground before rifling his shot into the back of the net.
The Americans attempted to make some inroads through some dynamic runs from Fabian Johnson. One such foray in the 12th minute ended with him being fouled by Alves, but Clint Dempsey's subsequent free kick flew just over the bar.
Just as it had in its opening match against Germany, Portugal manager Paulo Bento was forced into an early substitution, with forward Helger Postiga forced to come off for Eder in the 16th minute due to an apparent hamstring injury.
In the meantime, the U.S. continued to push the tempo. A lofted ball from Michael Bradley found Dempsey in the inside right channel, but his tight-angled shot was saved by Beto. The ensuing corner saw the ball fall to Dempsey again, but his effort went over the bar.
The U.S. continued to pepper the Portugal goal with shots from distance, but these were either saved easily or missed the target. Dempsey did manage to get closer to goal in the 27th minute, but his shot was blocked by Ricardo Costa.
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Portugal finished the half with a flourish. A 43rd-minute counterattack saw Ronaldo's pass find Nani in space, but Howard was on hand to save the ensuing shot. Nani went close again two minutes, as his fierce drive appeared to fool Howard and caromed off the post. Eder's deflected effort appeared set to loop over Howard, but the U.S. keeper recovered spectacularly to tip the effort over the bar.
The second half saw Portugal get on more level terms with the U.S., but the Americans still created the better chances, including a fantastic opportunity in the 54th minute. Zusi played a ball down the right wing for the rampaging Johnson. With Beto coming out to challenge Johnson cut the ball back to Bradley, but with the goal gaping, Ricardo Costa produced a fantastic goal-line clearance to keep Portugal ahead.
The sustained pressure by the Americans finally paid off in the 64th minute. A Zusi corner was half-cleared to Jones, and his rocket from outside the box curled beautifully into the side netting and the U.S. was level at last.
Portugal responded with its best spell of the match. A half-cleared found Mireles at the back post, but Howard was on hand to repel his shot.
Bento then brought on Varela for Mireles a few minutes later, and Klinsmann responded by bringing on DeAndre Yedlin for the tiring Bedoya.
The U.S. then broke through for what it thought was the game-winner. A cross from the right wing fell to Bradley, and his shot squirted loose to Zusi. The Sporting Kansas City midfielder could have opted to shoot, but instead played a delightful chip into the unmarked Dempsey, who chested the ball into the open net.
The U.S. bench erupted in delight, mobbing Dempsey. There were still nine minutes plus stoppage time left to play. It proved to be just enough time for Portugal. Ronaldo gathered the ball in space down the left wing, and his cross found Varela open at the back post to level matters leaving the U.S. in despair, and Portugal alive to fight another day.
Player ratings: (0-10)
G Tim Howard, 6.5 - Was hung out to dry on both goals. Looked fooled on one Nani attempt, but an incredible recovery saw him tip Eder's rebound attempt over the bar.
D DaMarcus Beasley, 6 - Held up his side well, and was alert to cut out a dangerous looking through ball for Eder. Did seem to fade a bit against the runs of Nani and later Ronaldo.
D Matt Besler, 7 - Was sharp throughout, timing his tackles well and was commanding in the air. Looked to be injured at one point, but recovered to play a strong match.
D Geoff Cameron, 4 - Over the entire match, Cameron was solid for the most part, but the nightmarish first eight minutes and his failure to mark Varela on the goal can't be ignored. He simply had to do better in both situations.
D Fabian Johnson, 8 - Was a constant menace going forward, and nearly scored on one long-range effort in the 32nd minute. On another night might have had a few assists.
M Jermaine Jones, 7.5 - Started out slowly with some unforced errors, but gradually settled in, winning tackles and finding the range with his passes. He found the range with his magnificent shot too in the 64th minute. Did earn yellow in the 75th minute, but it was a foul he had to take.
M Kyle Beckerman, 6 - Stayed within himself for the most part and broke up plenty of plays, but one misplay launched a dangerous Portugal counter. Looked a bit lucky to get away with an elbow to Mireles.
M Michael Bradley, 5 - Looked back to his old self early, and just needed to find the range on his shots more. Should have done better on opportunity set up by Johnson, and seemed to fade a bit late. Made a poor pass that led to Ronaldo gaining possession and setting up the equalizer.
M Alejandro Bedoya, 5 - Worked hard to track back defensively, but was pretty anonymous on attack.
M Graham Zusi, 7 - Saw plenty of the ball, and linked up well with his teammates. Had some dangerous set pieces in the first half. Had one bad giveaway, but sprung Johnson down the wing to create a great chance and set up Dempsey's goal.
F Clint Dempsey, 7 - Didn't look like a player with a broken nose. Was active throughout and a consistent threat in the attack. His goal should have been the game-winner, but Portugal had other plans.
M DeAndre Yedlin, 6.5 - Acquitted himself well in his first World Cup match. Connecting his passes well and was involved in the buildup to Dempsey's goal.
F Chris Wondolowski, NR - Late appearance for the San Jose striker.
D Omar Gonzalez, NR - Came onto the field in stoppage time.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.