Dempsey, Defense Inspire US to Draw With England
RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- Thanks to some impressive resilience, heroic performances from its defenders and quite a bit of good fortune, the U.S. national team recovered from a nightmare opening to secure a satisfying 1-1 draw with England in its eagerly-anticipated 2010 World Cup debut.
In a moving display of unity, the American starters put their left hands on each others' shoulders as the Star Spangled Banner played before kickoff on a crisp night at Royal Bafokeng Stadium, a little more than two hours northwest of Johannesburg. A few minutes later, the U.S. was in disarray.
For the second straight World Cup, a defensive breakdown in the opening moments resulted in an early deficit. In 2006, it was Jan Koller powering a header past Kasey Keller. On Saturday, it was England captain Steven Gerrard slipping by Ricardo Clark and poking a shot through Tim Howard in just the 4th minute.
It was a disastrous beginning, and the Americans clearly took another 5-6 minutes to recover and get their bearings. Coach Bob Bradley opted to start Real Salt Lake speedster Robbie Findley up front with Jozy Altidore, and had Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey on the wings as expected. The central defense tandem of Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu would be charged with limiting the fearsome Wayne Rooney, although both were continuing to recover from injuries.
"The whole idea was, don't concede early. And that's what we did. Conceded early. And it was like, 'Damn!' But I thought we responded well," Dempsey said.
With 10 minutes elapsed, the players expected to lead the attack had barely touched the ball, and the defense that raised so many questions leading up to Saturday already had conceded a goal. The scoreboards and clocks in Rustenburg weren't working, adding a surreal touch to the impending disaster. It was hard to imagine how the 2010 World Cup could have started worse.
But the U.S. slowly picked itself back up, and soon would create its own luck. They earned three consecutive corner kicks during the 12th to 14th minutes, providing some room to catch their breath. In the 19th minute, with Rooney still struggling to make an impact, Altidore nearly scored on a header off a cross from Donovan. They avoided disaster about 10 minutes later when Emile Heskey slid into Howard and injured his ribs. Howard stayed down for several minutes and reserve Marcus Hahnemann began warming up, but the substitution never happened.
Instead, with five minutes before halftime, England goalkeeper Robert Green became the story. The identify of Fabio Capello's choice between the pipes was the subject of intense speculation in the UK this week. Bradley called it "the $64,000 question." Capello ultimately settled on the West Ham man, but he's probably regretting that choice Saturday night.
It was an innocent bid from distance by Clint Dempsey that changed everything, coming after a nice move on Steven Gerrard gave the Texan the space to launch with his left foot. Gerrard clearly had been the best player on the field to that point, but he could only watch as Dempsey's shot bounced twice, hit Green's two hands and slipped over the line.
"These balls move so much, if you hit it on goal you will have a chance," Dempsey said, as he became only the second American (Brian McBride is the other) to score in two World Cups. "It was one of those goals where you say, 'Why can't I get one like that?' "
Unlike many of his teammates, Green courageously faced the press after the game. "I take responsibility," he said. "It was my mistake. I've made mistakes in my career. I'm strong enough to bounce back."
The second half was entirely about the determination and redemption of the American defense. Onyewu, questioned because of his knee injury and shaky performance against the Czech Republic; DeMerit, a second-division player in England dealing with an abdominal injury and asked to handle the Premier League's best; Steve Cherundolo, the apparent default starting choice from an uninspiring collection of outside backs.
Supported ably by left defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra and defensive midfielder Michael Bradley, who covered his usual acreage, Onyewu, DeMerit and Cherundolo were outstanding. Every time a play was needed, one of them made it. Cherundolo had forced England into a first-half substitution by beating left midfielder James Milner consistently down the flank, and he was sturdy throughout the second stanza. DeMerit and Onyewu, almost inconceivably, grew stronger as the game wore on and made stop after stop, highlighted by the latter's late slide tackle of Chelsea star Frank Lampard just a few yards from Howard's goal. Rooney, called by many the best striker in the world, was a 90-minute non-factor.
"Just to get your legs underneath you, you feel more flow of the game and you get more comfortable as the game goes on," Onyewu said. "I felt good. This is the first 90 for me in a long time, in over half a year. I know there was a lot of questions. I told you I'd be ready, and I think I fulfilled my quota right there."
DeMerit said, "It takes a lot of courage for Gooch to be able to do that."
England continued to enjoy most of the possession, but there was a growing sense as the game wore on that the Americans wouldn't be beaten. In fact, the U.S. had the best scoring chance in the second half, when Altidore barreled down the left and forced Green into a save at close range. The ball bounced off Green's hands again, but this time hit the post.
"I think it's easy to say that they were [out of sync]" DeMerit said. "But it's also easy to say that we contributed to that and not letting them play. Put the best players in the world under pressure and they're not going to pass maybe as well as they normally do. That's the game plan coming in and I think we did a good job of that tonight ... I said that in the changing room after the game, with blood all over my knees and shins. I said 'If I'm not bleeding at the end of the game, then I haven't done my job'."
In 2006, after scoring their early goal, the Czechs went on to win 3-0. On Saturday, it was the Americans saluting fans follwoing the whistle. Rather than fold, the U.S. stayed composed and worked its way back into the game. Yes, it had the better goalie, but it also was a remarkably mature and workmanlike performance for a team thought to lack soccer savvy by outsiders. They knew it too, and soaked in the atmosphere after the whistle long after the English retreated to their locker room. It was not three points, but it certainly the kind of performance that could lead to bigger things down the road.
"The result is terrific. A few of us were talking about how in the past, we would have come out ecstatic and I think we're all a little disappointed that we didn't actually play a little better with the ball and that we maybe didn't find a way to win the game," Donovan said, fighting off a bit of a cough. "But all things considered, playing one of the best teams in the world, to get a point out of the first game is a big plus."