RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- Legions of hopeful U.S. supporters, who may wonder if they'll ever see another World Cup campaign that doesn't start unraveling inside of five minutes, do have something to feel pretty good about:
The response this time was immense.
The American's part of the 19th World Cup began in startling disarray but finished in a well-earned 1-1 draw inside the pulsating Royal Bafokeng Stadium.
It's all still there at South Africa 2010 for the United States, which made the best of Tim Howard's fine work and a splash of providence -- although they'll surely call Robert Green's blunder something else back in England.
A draw will surely suffice -- even against an England team seems curiously lacking in self-belief -- for this historic clash, easily the most highly anticipated soccer contest in United States history.
A U.S. side with precious few offensive ideas and even fewer connections between a pair of young forwards matched England's early goal on one of their own as Clint Dempsey's soft shot from 25 yards inexplicably escaped Green's grasp. That was enough in a scrappy little ragamuffin of a match, but one that U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his side will surely take. Tellingly, England's men hurried off the field while the Americans hung around, graciously walking the field to thank their substantial flag-waving following.
It must be a terrible disappointment for an England team hopeful of so much more than the familiar quarterfinal crash and burn. Barnstorming England forward Wayne Rooney was only occasionally dangerous. The U.S. center backs were something less than elegant and Oguchi Onyewu still doesn't look quite right. On the other hand, determination goes a long way, as he and Jay DeMerit showed against Rooney et al.
An industrious U.S. midfield mostly played it safe, never really putting England on its heels but digging in, holding its shape and doing what needed to be done. Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark may be far less decorated that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, but for one night in the northern reaches of South Africa, the U.S. pair were more or less their equals.
"There was a big battle in midfield all night long, and I felt our midfield did well all night," coach Bradley said.
The hapless flashbacks to four years earlier surely swept through U.S. fans (and probably some players, too) as an American side looking nervous and naïve allowed Gerrard to slip through unmarked in the fourth minute. Four years ago in Germany, Jan Koller put the whole U.S. campaign under big duress when he struck for Czech Republic in the fifth minute -- and we all know how that worked out for the United States.
We hear about players "switching off." Clark apparently forgot to switch on at the opening whistle. He lost track of Gerrard on England's first real surge. DeMerit couldn't contain Emile Heskey's target work as the England frontrunner led Gerrard perfectly. The Liverpool star's two touches were precise and the Three Lions roared.
"England made us pay, but I think it forced us to get ourselves going into the game very quickly after that, because there was no time to play your way into the game after that," Bradley said.
Outside of Gerrard's early goal, all was hardly peaches and cream for the Three Lions, who seemed oddly content with the slim lead and only occasionally got enough numbers forward to seriously threaten the Americans for the first 70 minutes. Fabio Capello voiced his displeasure by removing James Milner after 30 minutes. England's left-sided midfielder was having trouble coping with Steve Cherundolo and Landon Donovan; Milner's yellow card for his second hard foul on the effective Cherundolo was proof. Nor was he offering much on offense, so in came Shaun Wright-Phillips off the bench.
Shortly after came disaster for England, ostensibly the land of goalkeepers. That moniker seems up for grabs after England's No. 1 made such a ridiculous mess of Dempsey's ordinary shot.
Oh, how the British tabs will crush Green for this one. He surely can't blame the ballistic oddities of the Jubalani match ball for his shoddy work, which could well be the howler of the year. Dempsey pointed skyward in celebration -- divine intervention, indeed.
"I take responsibility," Green said. "It was my mistake. I've made mistakes in my career and I'm strong enough to bounce back. "
As for his counterpart, the site of Howard on the ground unnerved the U.S. contingent in the 29th. Heskey went clattering into Howard with both feet, without a word from Brazilian referee Carlos Simon. Howard was bruised but recovered sufficiently to earn Man of the Match honors.
Just a few promising U.S. moments could be found after the break, as Jamie Carragher and Gerrard collected cautions a minute apart; the England pair needed something beyond the law to cope with runs from Robbie Findley and Dempsey
England gained momentum after about 70 minutes but never found a way past a gradually improving Onyewu and Howard.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10):
GK, Tim Howard, 8: He was everything he needed to be and everything followers expected of a man who provided his share of big moments. Howard could only come up screaming on the early goal, left totally exposed. He was composed from there, even when playing through a nasty knock, and his decision making was faultless.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 8: The best man in a U.S. shirt this side of Howard. He looked like a vet who has been there before (which of course he has), helping to settle a back line that was dodgy initially. He made good connections with Donovan and made life so hard on Milner that Fabio Capello removed the England midfielder. Cherundolo mostly contained Shaun Wright-Phillips after the substitution and was also Johnny on the spot near goal on one dangerous England surge.
D, Jay DeMerit, 5: He competed hard and didn't look particularly nervous, but did sometimes look a little like a man fighting beyond his weight class, a bit overmatched and sometimes even clumsy. On the other hand, he did help contain one of the world's top strikers, mostly through gritty effort.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 6: Seemed to improve as the match went on, when it was less about skill and more about heart and hard work. Still, his passing out of the back was sloppy and slow and his timing and judgment still aren't where they need to be. Balls fell to ground that didn't need to or sailed over his head when they shouldn't have. He did rattle some bones with a couple of fierce tackles.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 5: Not the best of nights, although he never made any major mistakes. He was bothered by Aaron Lennon's pace and occasionally by Glen Johnson as well. For his part, Bocanegra offered little to the attack.
M, Landon Donovan, 6: Was easily the best U.S. attacker before the break, although he was fairly tame in the second half. His set-piece service was as useful as ever even if his chances to provide them were limited. He worrried Green momentarily with a first-half effort from long range.
M, Ricardo Clark, 5: His failure to track Gerrard on England's early strike wasn't ultimately unforgivable, but it certainly could have been. He looked shaky for about 10 minutes in his World Cup debut, but did seem to find his feet after that. From there, Clark was generally tidy in his role, content to make simple passes.
M, Michael Bradley, 6: If he didn't look overwhelming in the middle, consider that the bigger accomplishment is that he never looked overwhelmed by England's heralded duo of central men. He popped up in more of the right places than Clark, especially in the first half. Bradley handled the ball adequately. Preferring caution, we never really saw any of the of signature late runs into the penalty area.
M, Clint Dempsey, 6: Classic Dempsey, again. He found it hard to play his way into the match, a difference-maker who never really made a difference. Well, unless you count the semi-speculative shot that rescued the night, that is.
F, Jozy Altidore, 5: Showed no effects of the recent injury as he bravely battled big Ledley King early, although to little avail. He turned up the best U.S. moment after the break, bullying past King's replacement Jamie Carragher in a determined effort that careened off the post.
F, Robbie Findley, 4: Looking jittery, he was offside twice inside the first five minutes. He did make a little something here and there from sheer hustle, and he put the sluggish Jamie Carragher in trouble with one crisp turn, earning a caution for the England center back. Still, not much of a night to write home about individually.
F, Edson Buddle, 5: Mostly unseen after coming on for Jozy Altidore.
M, Stuart Holden, 5: Hustled around a bit as a late sub and did get in one cross that led to a corner kick.