The scores of England fans that filled the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenberg had reason to think Saturday night would turn into a party.
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A fourth-minute goal by Steven Gerrard stunned the United States early on in what looked like it could be a romp. What the English should have known is that it takes more than one punch to finish off this American team.
A strong defensive effort for the final 86 minutes, coupled with a ghastly error from England goalkeeper Robert Green helped the United States register a well-earned 1-1 draw in the opening match for both World Cup teams.
While a bit of luck helped the Americans, they put in their own work to earn the draw. Goalkeeper Tim Howard made his first World Cup match a memorable one, saving six shots to earn Man of the Match. Defender Oguchi Onyewu finally eased fears about his readiness for the World Cup by anchoring the back line with the type of performance he used to deliver before going down with a ruptured patellar tendon last October.
It really was a case of the U.S. team’s stars stepping up. From Clint Dempsey pulling off a pair of audacious turns before ripping the shot that Green eventually fumbled into his own net, to Landon Donovan’s tireless work and dangerous set pieces, to Onyewu playing an outstanding match in his first full game in eight months, the United States’ best stepped up when needed.
Things didn’t start well at all for the Americans, as England pounced on some lax defending to take an early lead and spark the pro-England crowd. Defensive lapses by Jay DeMerit and Ricardo Clark allowed Emile Heskey and Gerrard to combine on a fourth-minute goal by Gerrard.
Rather than crumble under the weight of pressure surrounding this high-profile match, the United States shook off the goal and proceeded to settle into a rhythm that helped set the Americans up for the eventual draw.
“The Czech Republic game four years ago (in the World Cup), when they scored that goal early, there was this sense of ‘Oh no’,” said Landon Donovan. “Today, I didn’t have that feeling. We just felt like ‘Okay, let’s get back in the game. We don’t have to go get it in the next five minutes. Eventually we’ll get back in the game.’
“And sure enough, we got back in the game.”
The Americans worked their way back in the game on the strength of a sturdy defense and the hard work put in by central midfielders Michael Bradley and Clark. While the defense hardened, Clint Dempsey and Donovan worked tirelessly to put pressure on England’s back line and Dempsey broke through in the 40th minute with a pair of clever turns and long-range blast that fooled Green into an awful blunder.
England pressed the issue in the second half, which allowed Howard and Onyewu, the team’s top stars on the night, to shine. Howard made several key saves while Onyewu grew stronger as the game wore on, keeping pace with Rooney at times, racing fearlessly into challenges and dominating in the air like he did in last summer’s Confederations Cup. All the concerns about his knee and his ability to play well in this World Cup evaporated with each successful challenge and each header he won.
“When we started practice in mid-May, although there were a lot of naysayers about my fitness and about my knee, I knew I’d be ready and fit by the time the tournament started,” Onyewu said. “I think in terms of my knee and whether I can go 90, I think I proved that tonight.”
“Gooch was very good,” Howard said. “It’s not an easy way to come back and play your first full 90 (minutes).
“As much of a mountain of a man as he is, he’s going to get even stronger after this performance, which is good for me.”
“’Gooch’ was fantastic,” said Landon Donovan. “I think there was some doubt during the week about whether he’d be ready or not and you give a guy like that a chance and he’s going to make you proud.”
Onyewu wasn’t alone in turning in a strong defensive effort. Cherundolo won the battle on his flank and DeMerit was key in keeping Rooney from running rampant, following the star striker as he dropped into midfield in an attempt to get more involved. Rooney broke free a few times, but each time another American defender was there to deal with the Manchester United ace.
Not every American performance was oustanding. Clark struggled in the first half before eventually settling in and forming a good partnership with Bradley, who neutralized Frank Lampard in a matchup few would have given him a chance of winning. Clark’s uneasy moments make you wonder whether Bob Bradley will turn to Maurice Edu or Jose Torres when the United States takes on Slovenia.
The American forwards didn’t find the net, but their work to pressure England’s defense deserves mention. Altidore was particularly effective in the second half, as he began asserting himself and forced Green into his best save of the day. Findley ran at England’s defense every chance he got, but he was never really a threat, which leaves you wondering whether Bob Bradley will look elsewhere for a forward partner for Altidore.
Overall, the draw with England was similar to so many previous impressive results for the United States. A solid team effort, strong defending and memorable performances from the team’s top players. Everything the United States needed to have happen to gain a result on Saturday did happen, and now the Americans head into the rest of the group stage brimming with confidence after taking a point off one of the favorites heading into the World Cup.
In the process, the United States has given itself momentum heading into its next match, against Slovenia, while letting American fans close out Saturday night singing while England fans were left silenced and wondering what went wrong.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.