SAO PAULO – Michael Bradley stuck out his right foot to meet Fabian Johnson's pass, ready to slot the ball into the empty net from 6 yards out. Surely this would be a goal.
Then the ball struck Portuguese defender Ricardo Costa on a knee in front of the goal line and ricocheted away. Bradley stopped at a post, put a hand on each cheek and closed his eyes in shock, as if he had seen a ghost.
It's been that type of World Cup for the U.S midfielder.
His night would get even worse when he was stripped of the ball late in stoppage time, leading to Portugal's tying goal in Sunday night's 2-2 draw.
"In the game there's a million of these kind of plays," the 26-year-old Bradley said afterward in the bowels of Arena da Amazonia.
The U.S. may need at least a tie Thursday against three-time champion Germany to reach the knockout stage of consecutive World Cups for the first time and keep the record number of fans tuned in back home. Teammates count on Bradley's end-to-end play both to drive the attack and stiffen their defense.
Bradley ran 13,922 yards (12,730 meters) against Ghana and 13,346 (12,204) versus Portugal, according to FIFA. Among players with two games, only Australia's Matt McKay covered more.
Much has been expected of Bradley ever since he trained with the national team for the first time before the 2006 World Cup, when coach Bruce Arena gave the then-18-year-old his national team debut against Venezuela.
He became a regular during the next four-year cycle when his dad, Bob Bradley, took over as coach. And by the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, he had transformed into one of the top American players, part of the spine along with Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. He scored the tying goal against Slovenia, helping the Americans reach the second round.
But in this year's opener against Ghana, he had little impact in the match when compared with his past performances. That was despite completing 42 of 56 passes, both team highs.
"I'm certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself to know that it wasn't my sharpest night, but unfortunately they're not all going to be," he said. "I think as a team we realized at a certain point that it wasn't going to be a night making a million passes or necessarily playing the most beautiful soccer, but it was about running and tackling and closing down and making the game hard on Ghana."
He was far more dominant against Portugal, again leading the U.S. with 65 completed passes and 75 attempts.
"Michael is undoubtedly one of our key players," said Jurgen Klinsmann, who succeeded the elder Bradley three years ago. "He has an engine that's unbelievable. He's covering up for other players all over the place. His vision and his passing is just outstanding. Here and there it's not going to be a perfect game."
Bradley's final moments against Portugal were especially frustrating. Eder shoved him off the ball, stole it and made a short pass to Nani, who sent it up the field and wide to Cristiano Ronaldo. The world player of the year sent a 25-yard cross into the box, which was headed by Varela past Howard with about 30 seconds left in five minutes of stoppage time, preventing the U.S. from clinching advancement with a game to spare.
Ninety minutes later, Bradley already was looking ahead toward the game against Germany in Recife.
"We have a big belief in ourselves and what we can do and what we're all about," he said.
Bradley comes from a big sports family. His father went on to coach Egypt from 2011-13 and currently is with Norway's Stabaek, the first American to coach a European first-division team. Uncle Scott, a former big league catcher, has been Princeton's baseball coach for 17 seasons. Uncle Jeff is a longtime reporter known for his soccer and baseball coverage.
Soccer has allowed Michael to see the world during stints with the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, Heerenveen (Netherlands), Borussia Moenchengladbach (Germany), Aston Villa (England), Chievo Verona and Roma (Italy), and now Toronto FC, which gave him a $6.5 million salary this year that trails only Seattle's Clint Dempsey in Major League Soccer. Bradley has gained knowledge of tactics and style — in addition to learning Italian, Dutch and German.
Klinsmann is counting on him against Germany, the nation he helped lead to the 1990 World Cup title and coached to the 2006 semifinals.
"I'm absolutely sure that Michael will grow big-time into this tournament," he said. "Every game you play now is getting bigger."