Rea: A gutty performance by the U.S., even without the win

It was a goal by a gut at one end and a sucker punch to the gut at the other. So, so close …

Before Sunday’s match with Portugal, any U.S. soccer fan would have bitten your hand off for a 2-2 tie, but this felt like a devastating defeat.

Soccer can be a cruel game and, to give up a goal in the dying seconds of any match is heart-breaking — never mind when it prevents you from securing a place in the Round of 16 on the greatest stage of all.

So let’s remember and repeat: This was a great result for the States. And that despite giving Portugal a goal start!

Before the contest, we knew the Americans had to keep it tight, try to kill the pace of the game and frustrate their opponent. That went out the window in a blink of an eye with Geoff Cameron’s disastrous defensive gaffe, clearing the ball back across his own goalmouth, where three Portuguese attackers were lining up to score.

Soccer is often packed full of irony and, until Sunday night, Portugal’s Nani had not scored a goal all season for his English club team, Manchester United, nor all year for his country.

But to its credit, the U.S. team steadied, rallied and regrouped despite the early setback. I wrote last week that Portugal was overrated and nothing to be frightened of and, for long stretches of the game, it was the U.S. that looked like the better team. If you were watching the game without knowing which nation was which, you would have thought the boys in white were the higher-rated country.

They superbly neutralized the threat of the world Player of the Year; indeed, it was more than 30 minutes into the contest before Cristiano Ronaldo broke free from American shackles to attempt a shot at goal. And the back four, marshalled by the outstanding DaMarcus Beasley, were immense.

At the other end of the field, they attacked with verve and vigor and always looked dangerous when they spread the ball wide and cut it into the penalty area. Their equalizing goal was no lucky, fluky strike of an underdog but a thoroughly deserved rocket struck with power and precision. And deep, deep into injury time, it appeared the goal bellied in off Clint Dempsey’s midriff was going to seal the Americans’ greatest soccer result in more than a decade.

But at this level, it’s the tiny details that make the difference between glorious victory and a celebration-sapping tie.

The States should have taken the ball to the corner, ran down the clock and wasted time. Instead, a tired Michael Bradley lost it right in the middle of the field, just 30 yards from his team’s goal. And for the first time in 95 minutes, Ronaldo showed his class: The vicious, curling cross he whipped in, putting it on a dime for Silvestre Varela, kept his nation in the tournament. Barely.

Here’s the thing: You still would rather be in the U.S. team’s place than Portugal’s. Sure, the late goal is disappointing, and of course you would rather be resting players in the third match and planning for the knockout rounds. But the U.S. is still in pole position to escape alive from the Group of Death with two of the top four countries in the world.

They only need a tie. Germany only needs a tie. Maybe they will both settle for that and play a boring, scoreless draw. The U.S. could even lose and still qualify for the next round. They could win and top the group. And with this topsy-turvy World Cup, you wouldn’t bet against it.

So buckle up for the next ride Thursday. It’s going to be a wild one.