USA vs. Portugal: Biggest Stars from Crucial Group-of-Death Match

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USA vs. Portugal: Biggest Stars from Crucial Group-of-Death Match
Elsa/Getty Images

It was a heartbreaking finish for the U.S. national team, but they are still comfortably sitting atop the standings in the "Group of Death" after a 2-2 draw with Portugal.

After clawing their way back into the match, Team USA looked like the better country on the pitch for the entire second half. An early goal by Nani would be nullified by Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey to give the Americans a 2-1 lead at the end of 90 minutes.

Unfortunately, that lead wouldn't hold, as Cristiano Ronaldo put his stamp on the World Cup—finally—in the final seconds of stoppage time. His cross found the head of Silvestre Varela, who knotted up the score with a beautiful header to secure the draw.

The next match for both teams comes in just three days, which is outrageous considering that Germany and Ghana played on Saturday in an early contest. Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News shared his thoughts on the group schedule:

As if the U.S. task isn't tough enough against Germany, FIFA has messed up yet another thing, by separating the days when teams play within a group. The U.S. has only three off days before its next match, while Germany will have an extra 27 hours' rest. That likely will matter a great deal, considering the climate and the effort again at the next stop, Recife.

Though the U.S. weren't able to clinch a berth in the knockout stage, they come away with four points heading into a match with world No. 2 Germany. With Team USA and Portugal heading into a do-or-die situation on Thursday, here's a look at the biggest stars from their contest.

 

Clint Dempsey

Captain America. Deuce. Captain. Call Dempsey whatever you want, but he simply comes up huge in the biggest situations.

Without the familiar face of Landon Donovan on the pitch for the Stars and Stripes, Dempsey has been the shining star the team needed. After scoring two goals through the first two matches this World Cup, ESPN Stats & Info took a look at all four of his tallies through the last two tournaments:

Dempsey suffered a broken nose in the opener against Ghana and was mostly quiet through the start of the second half. But as he always does, the 31-year-old still found a way to make a resounding impact late in the match.

In a World Cup where the popularity of soccer in the U.S. has been at an all-time high, Twitter Data noted the tweets per minute following his exciting goal:

Given time to recover following the exhilarating contest, look for Dempsey to once again show up ready to come through against Germany.

 

Silvestre Varela

Elsa/Getty Images

Talk about a clutch moment. If it wasn't for Varela's header in the dying seconds of stoppage time, Portugal would be out of the World Cup after just two matches.

Though it was an emotionally crushing blow for the U.S., the header also lifted Portugal back into contention. Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Varela's goal was due to a defensive breakdown by Team USA:

After nearly an entire match of suffocating defense on Ronaldo, the U.S. had two breakdowns that cost them against Portugal. Nani's goal at the opening of the game was also due to a lapse on defense, as he found the ball with a wide-open opportunity against a helpless Tim Howard.

Not only was the goal a thing of beauty, but it was also historic, as Paul Carr of ESPN noted:

While it wasn't for the victory or to secure a berth to the next round, Varela's goal is still a huge one for Portugal. But with a huge goal differential still in place and a win necessary against Ghana, the hopes are still slim for Varela's country.

 

Tim Howard

In a match where he surrendered two goals, it was hardly a poor showing for Tim Howard.

The Everton FC goalkeeper made several brilliant saves to finish with four in the match and only gave up goals on defensive breakdowns. U.S. Soccer provided a quote from the goalie following his performance:

Much of the team's confidence comes from Howard, who is clearly ready for the chance to take on Thomas Mueller and Germany. Despite the stiff test ahead, Howard has shown he's up to the task against even the best players in the world.

Howard's effort against Portugal was good enough to also win the Man of the Match award, as FIFA.com's Twitter account announced:

While he's been outstanding through two matches in the World Cup, the final game of the group stage will be the most important.

The daunting task of playing against world No. 2 Germany will be difficult, but if his brilliant play can hold up once again for a win or a draw, Team USA might just find themselves advancing out of the Group of Death on Thursday.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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