RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- We've all seen this movie before, a sluggish start from the United States. Six times in final-round qualifying the United States conceded the first goal.
So it shouldn't have been an enormous surprise when Steven Gerrard slipped through a gaping hole in the U.S. back line to put England ahead early in Saturday's epic clash. It's even less surprising considering that 8 of 13 Americans on the field Saturday were World Cup debutantes -- some of them looking the part more than others.
Less predictable was the collective quick turn toward improvement. So much of that was down to two men who know about holding their nerve in big moments, Man of the Match Tim Howard and the equally impressive right back Steve Cherundolo.
"We weren't particularly sharp early on, as you saw, a bunch of giveaways," said Howard, who has stood the test on big matches in England, but who was making his World Cup debut. "We weren't tight enough, particularly on Gerrard for the goal, on (Emile) Heskey on the layoff for the goal. We were a little shaky at the start, whether it was nerves or what have you. They came out well, but we responded. We know we can respond well to adversity. Once we calmed down and got into the flow of the game, I thought we did well."
Howard's body of work was clear to all. He parried, pushed away or caught everything England had. Most of England's best efforts came from beyond the 18, but even those must be dealt with properly, as we saw from Robert Green's outrageous misfortune.
Howard even impressed England No. 2 goalkeeper David James, who may find himself as the No. 1 by this time Sunday given Green's blunder for the ages. "Tim Howard justified his Man of the Match performance," James said. "He looks alive and on it."
Howard nearly wasn't around to make those saves, emerging with bruised ribs from a 29th minute collision with Heskey. Howard said afterward that Heskey "had every right to go for that ball, same as I did."
Still, Howard's sporting attitude won't make his ribs feel any better. Things looked dicey as Howard remained on the ground for about three minutes. On the U.S. bench, near where Brad Guzan began stretching and Marcus Hahnemann began working with goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel, coach Bob Bradley communicated with the team's medical staff and chose to keep the No. 1 in play. Howard said he fought through pain he described as "agony" until halftime, when pain medication dulled some of the ache.
"Timmy, as always, never wants to come off, and now we'll assess over next few days how he's feeling," Bradley said.
Perhaps not as glaringly obvious was Cherundolo's dominant two-way work, as the Hannover co-captain was nearly flawless to begin his second World Cup campaign. England's JamesMilner probably should have been booked for an early foul on the U.S. right back. When Milner required a second hard foul to keep Cherundolo from storming by, Brazilian referee CarlosSimon reached for the game's first card. As Milner was having no more success against Cherundolo on the offensive end either, England coach FabioCapello removed the Aston Villa man in favor of speeder winger Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Phillips never really got the best of Cherundolo, either.
"It was not so easy to go forward, because the U.S. was defending very well," Capello said.
In the middle, OguchiOnyewu wasn't at his best early, but did work his way around the game enough to finish on the rise. That's especially impressive considering that he went a full 90 minutes for the first time since last October.
"With Gooch, he's a real good competitor, and the longer the game went on the more comfortable he felt, and that's real important for us," Bradley said.
And what of WayneRooney? The weight of the world must be on his squat frame, and he played a bit like it in Rustenburg. The United States will not see a more talented striker until the second round, at least, but they managed to contain England's best hope for the tournament glory for one night.
"Rooney is such a mobile player, the way he moves around," Bradley said. "It really takes a good level of concentration. I thought in the first half there still some times the back line was a little out of synch, but I thought that got better in the second half."