THE START THEY NEEDED

On a historic night in South Africa, the underdog Americans matched England blow for blow, putting the U.S. team in position for a coveted spot in the knockout rounds
June 20, 2010

It was the doomsday scenario facing any orange-slice-sucking second-grader asked to play goalkeeper for the first time—only with a global audience, the hopes of two nations and the Fleet Street tabloids involved. Last Saturday, on a cold June night in the South African highveld, an English goalkeeper named Robert Green handed the U.S. a World Cup gift for the ages. Kneeling to corral a harmless bouncing shot by midfielder Clint Dempsey, Green muffed it like a stone-handed shortstop, sending the ball into his own net and earning a place alongside Bill Buckner, Scott Norwood and Chris Webber in the annals of sporting infamy.

Green's Giveaway Gaffe, one of the worst goalkeeping blunders in World Cup history, gave the U.S. a 1--1 opening-game tie at Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium, a welcome result for an American team that settled down after allowing an easy fourth-minute strike by midfielder Steven Gerrard. While Dempsey's equalizer was hardly an aesthetic masterpiece, it was a fitting reward for the U.S.'s most enterprising player—he turned Gerrard twice before firing—and for a U.S. team that had a total of only four shots on goal in a three-game flameout four years ago in Germany. Facing one of the highest-paid collections of stars in the tournament, the Americans had four shots on goal against England alone. You can't score, after all, if you don't shoot.

"It's one of those goals where you [always] say, 'Why can't I get one like that?' " Dempsey said afterward, grinning like a prospector who'd struck the mother lode in a South African gold mine. "To go one goal down to England and then fight back into the game and end with a draw, we'll be happy with that." Green, for his part, was left to endure a barrage of snarky newspaper headlines, including HAND OF CLOD (News of the World), ROB-BISH (Daily Star) and even a BP reference: ONE DISASTROUS SPILL THE YANKS WON'T COMPLAIN ABOUT (The Times of London). "I should have stopped it, no two ways about it," said Green, who bravely spoke to reporters after a game that could jeopardize his international career.

With its showdown against the Group C heavyweight safely out of the way, the U.S. headed into this week needing most likely a win and a tie in its remaining first-round games, against Slovenia on Friday and Algeria on June 23, to book a place in the round of 16. For the Americans, who play better as underdogs, the challenge will be to produce as the favorite in both games, especially against Slovenia, which was leading the group after a dour 1--0 win against Algeria on Sunday (page 53). "A lot has been said about the England game, but when it comes down to it, these next games are what's most important," U.S. defender Jay DeMerit said on Sunday. "We knew if we could pick up points in the first game, we'd be on the right track, and now that we've done that, we've got a legitimate chance, but only if we take care of the next two games."

If U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was Sylvester Stallone in Victory last Saturday, turning back England shots despite suffering a painful rib injury (page 50), then DeMerit was Stallone in Rocky, continuing a remarkable story that has taken the Green Bay native from undrafted MLS reject plying the fields of London's city parks to ninth-division grinder to sixth-year pro and captain for the English second-tier club Watford. The 30-year-old DeMerit merely helped shut down Wayne Rooney, one of the world's most feared strikers, who grew increasingly frustrated as the game progressed, dropping deeper and deeper into the English midfield to demand the ball.

"If I'm not bleeding after a game, then I'm not doing my job," said DeMerit, who woke up on Sunday morning at the U.S. team hotel, the Irene Country Lodge near Pretoria, with cuts and bruises on his shins and knees and a throbbing pain in his left ankle courtesy of a kick from England defender John Terry. They were badges of honor for the 6-foot, 185-pound DeMerit, whose grit and determination make up for his deficiencies in athleticism and ball control. "My attitude from the day I stepped on English soil with a backpack was never to take anything for granted and work hard, and it's amazing that those attributes can get you this far," DeMerit said. "It's about knowing my strengths and weaknesses, knowing that my aggression and physicality can give anybody in the world problems when I'm on my game."

With six months to prepare for England, the U.S. coaches put together exhaustively detailed scouting reports that they synthesized for each of the players. Two days before the game DeMerit met with assistant coach Pierre Barrieu; they connected their laptops and downloaded a series of selected video clips onto DeMerit's computer. For much of the next 48 hours DeMerit sat in bed and watched footage of England forwards Rooney, Emile Heskey and Peter Crouch, as well as two dozen clips of recent England set pieces (on offense and defense), taking special note of Terry, the man DeMerit was assigned to mark on restarts. "If you can pick up little idiosyncrasies, what they might do when they go into certain spaces, those things can help you out throughout the game," DeMerit explained. As expected, for example, Terry usually made near-post runs on free kicks and corner kicks.

As for Rooney, whose influence would be one of the keys to the game, the U.S. coaches decided early on that it would be impossible to contain the Manchester United striker with just one defender. While DeMerit and central defense partner Oguchi Onyewu would be largely responsible for Rooney and Heskey, team defense would be paramount. "One thing Rooney does so well is the way he comes back to be an outlet, and he finds seams between the midfielders and the defenders," explained U.S. coach Bob Bradley in a quiet moment two days before the game. "From there he has an ability to make plays on the move and finish. He can drift to the left and come inside. The result is that [defending Rooney] isn't a one-man job. It's a conscious effort by everybody to understand that we need to be aware of where he is and not leave any gaps."

From the opening whistle there was no doubt that DeMerit had that awareness, not least because he was forced to respond to an unusual play just seconds into the game. After the U.S. kicked off, the ball squirted to Rooney, who barreled toward DeMerit in all his adrenaline-fueled glory. "It's not every game that you get your first tackle in after four seconds," DeMerit would say. "That was my first instinct, seeing the ball come at me and having Rooney coming down my neck and going, O.K., here we go. And then just diving in and hoping for that first tackle. To see that tackle go my way hopefully put doubt in Rooney's mind: Oh, s---, he's up for it today."

Perhaps, but the only profane exclamations three minutes later were coming from the Americans after a team defensive breakdown on Gerrard's goal. Following an England throw-in, Onyewu got pulled out, creating a gap with DeMerit, who reacted too slowly to a pass to Heskey. The big Englishman one-timed his feed to Gerrard, who had raced into the opening between the two center backs. "I was a second late on Heskey, and the space between Gooch and me was too big," said DeMerit. "Carlos [Bocanegra] and Rico [Ricardo Clark] tried to fill it but weren't in time, and if you give Gerrard that kind of space and time in front of the goal, he'll finish it nine times out of 10."

At that point the U.S. could have folded as it had after allowing an early goal in its 3--0 loss to the Czech Republic in the World Cup 2006 opener. But the Yanks found their rhythm, moved the ball (surprisingly possessing it more than England in the first half) and set the stage for Dempsey's fortuitous equalizer. "For the 10 to 15 minutes after their goal, we controlled the game and got our confidence back," said DeMerit. "From there it was a dogfight." Whether he was shoulder-charging Rooney, leaping above him in a second-half aerial challenge (and earning a yellow card for a handball) or grabbing an occasional fistful of Terry's jersey on free kicks, DeMerit was in full junkyard-dog mode.

By the middle of the second half Rooney was moving deeper into the midfield. The U.S. defense didn't neutralize him entirely—Rooney squeezed off a dangerous shot from outside the box and had a couple of chances closer in—but the Americans held firm in the end. "There were times I could tell Rooney was getting frustrated," said DeMerit. "A player like that, the more he sinks into midfield, the more I know I'm doing my job. But it wasn't just me. Our midfield was cutting down his passing lanes, and all of us were negating his space." DeMerit and Onyewu had occasional communication issues, but considering they were playing 90 minutes together for the first time since last August, it was an encouraging debut against one of the top pre--World Cup favorites.

More work remained this week, of course, and yet it was clear that the U.S. is comfortable at the first World Cup held on the African continent. The Americans have visited South Africa three times in the last three years, and the U.S.'s group-stage games are all taking place at venues where it played during last year's run to the Confederations Cup final (Rustenburg, Johannesburg's Ellis Park and Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld Stadium). Not only is the U.S. riding buses to its first three matches, but nobody is caught off guard when, say, an elephant in the road causes a delay, an only-in-Africa moment that happened to the U.S. caravan twice last week.

The challenge for the Americans against Slovenia and Algeria will be to avoid a familiar refrain from the past two World Cups. In 2002 the U.S. followed sterling performances against Portugal and South Korea with an inexplicably flat 3--1 loss to Poland and only advanced to the second round thanks to the Koreans' win against Portugal. Likewise, in '06 the U.S. pulled out a memorable 1--1 tie against eventual champion Italy only to crash out in a 2--1 elimination loss to Ghana. "I've been through two World Cups where we've had a great game and then let down the next game," said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan after the England tie. "So I know that I won't let that happen, and I'll make sure the team doesn't let it happen."

If the Americans can take care of business this week, they'll raise the profile of U.S. soccer even higher, around the world and in their own country. When DeMerit heard U-S-A! chants drowning out the famous England supporters in Rustenburg, he almost couldn't believe his ears. "The best thing about this tournament so far is the unbelievable support we've been getting," he said. "I know people in Wisconsin who couldn't give two craps about soccer that are e-mailing me about how they're trying to find jerseys that they'd never seen before. We all understand it's up to us to continue to help that growth in America, where the more success we have, the more people are going to notice and care. That's what it's all about: trying to become a soccer nation."

Provide a few more World Cup thrills as they did against England, and it might just happen.

DEMERIT WOKE UP ON SUNDAY WITH CUTS AND BRUISES ON HIS SHINS AND KNEES AND A THROBBING PAIN IN HIS LEFT ANKLE. "IF I'M NOT BLEEDING AFTER A GAME," HE SAID, "I'M NOT DOING MY JOB."

"I'VE BEEN IN TWO WORLD CUPS WHERE WE HAD A GREAT GAME AND THEN LET DOWN THE NEXT GAME," SAID DONOVAN. "I WON'T LET THAT HAPPEN, AND I'LL MAKE SURE THE TEAM DOESN'T LET THAT HAPPEN."

PHOTOPhotograph by BACK PAGE IMAGES/ICON.SMIBACKSTOPPERS After an early defensive lapse, Howard (1) and DeMerit (15) withstood the pressure from Heskey and the rest of England's finest. PHOTOBACK PAGE IMAGES/ICON SMISANDWICH DeMerit had studied up on Rooney (10) and with help from mates like Clark (left) frustrated the lethal striker all night. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYHIGHER GROUND The midfield cut off passing lanes, while Onyewu (5) and the D contested everything over the top.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)