A win is a win, and joy is unconfined; a loss is a loss, and sorrow knows no bounds. A tie, though, is ambiguous; a tie is unresolved, open, an unanswered question that leaves infinite room for interpretation.
It's only been a few hours since Portugal rescued a 2-2 draw against the USA with the last move of the match, since Varela snuck in behind a coasting Geoff Cameron to head home the equalizer, and there's still no defining the result. We won't actually know until Thursday morning, when the USA plays Germany and Ghana plays Portugal, and we find out whether tonight's final whistle doomed the USA to come up just short of qualifying for the knockout round, or whether it represented the point that America needed to go through.
The USA was supposed to lose to Portugal. A point was supposed to be a victory. The Americans confirmed it when they went down 1-0 after five minutes, thanks to Cameron somehow contriving to kick the ball 180 degrees opposite of where he was aiming to kick it, thus giving it to Nani in a spot where he could not have failed to score. And for ten minutes following the goal, Portugal took it in turns to pass the ball around every American defender, a calm game of keepaway that seemed destined to again land the ball in the USA net.
It is ultimately a credit to the USA that they not only picked themselves up off the mat, but played one of their best games ever as a team. At one point in the first half, the USA had barely a quarter of the possession; by halftime, they'd managed to turn that around to 55%. They ended the game with more shots than Portugal, and except for the first fifteen and last ten minutes, outplayed the side that was ranked #3 in the world.
Michael Bradley, restored to his normal self and driving the USA attack forward, should have scored ten minutes into the second half. Jermaine Jones, once again immense in midfield for the Americans, did score six minutes later, bending in a cannoning shot that left Portugal keeper Beto flat-footed, with no chance to reach the ball. And with ten minutes to go, a scramble in the Portugal area suddenly left Graham Zusi wide open on the left, where he could cross for an unmarked Clint Dempsey to gut the ball home for a 2-1 lead.
2-1. Against Portugal. After trailing 1-0. In the rainforest heat in Manaus. With a win - an impossible win - meaning that the USA could qualify for the knockout round after just two games.
Is it any wonder that all thoughts of a positive draw were forgotten? That one point suddenly went from one more than we hoped, to two too few?
We will remember this game for the USA's comeback performance, for Jones's screamer, and for the joy of going 2-1 up when it seemed for an hour like there was little chance of even getting back to 1-1. We will also remember it for Cameron, who gifted Portugal their first goal and who failed to track Varela on the last, for perhaps the most horrific defensive performance in USA World Cup history. He certainly wasn't all bad, but his lapse at the end of the game cost the USA two points, and his clearance at the beginning of the game ranks up there with Jeff Agoos's own goal twelve years ago as one of the most stunningly terrible defensive moments ever for the USA.
This may also go down in history, though, as the day that American fans began to love Jurgen Klinsmann, who completely outcoached Portugal. The Americans, without their best option up front, simply put Dempsey up front as a striker and overran Portugal in the middle of the field. Jones was everywhere, and Kyle Beckerman was wonderful again, playing defensively in front of the center backs. The Americans even made Portugal pay for including a clearly injured Cristiano Ronaldo on the left wing; Ronaldo basically stood completely still when not attacking, leaving right back Fabian Johnson free to play effectively as another winger.
By the time Klinsmann was inserting Deandre Yedlin to play right wing and switching Zusi to the left, we were done questioning him. Is it any wonder that it was Yedlin whose run created the second USA goal? For the second straight match, Klinsmann substituted one of the players that many thought shouldn't be in the team's 23-man squad, and that player created a goal for the US. We can only assume that Julian Green will score against Germany on Thursday.
The USA were 30 seconds away from making it to the knockout round; now, they must wait until Thursday. A win against mighty Germany will put them through, of course; a draw will do the same (and with Germany in the same boat, many have speculated that a draw is what we'll see.) Depending on the other results, a loss might be enough as well; if Portugal and Ghana tie, the USA could lose 15-0 to Germany and would still move on to the next round.
I have no idea what we'll see that day. It could be a boring, results-oriented 0-0 draw; it could be a wild 4-4 slugfest. We could see the USA that struggled but won against Ghana, or the USA that outplayed but drew with Portugal. They're the same team, yet different; the same players, but not. We have seen two games that appeared to come from different teams in different tournaments. Thursday, however, will determine whether this tournament is over - or keeps going for at least one more game.