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June 12, 2010

Luck of the draw

Carlisle By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com
(Archive)

England national team
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaEngland's Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Shaun Wright-Phillips leave the field after the game.

RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- For the United States, Saturday's 1-1 tie with England wasn't quite 1950 vintage, but the team will take it.

Ties, of course, never taste as sweet as victories. But when your team falls behind early, gets a Santa Claus-sized gift from the opposing goalkeeper and hangs on to snag a point against the presumed group favorites, the aftertaste is plenty satisfying. In the process, the U.S. did plenty to enhance its chances of reaching the second round.

Of course, just four minutes into the match, the U.S. was looking closer to the team that imploded in 2006 rather than the one that made history 60 years ago by upsetting England 1-0. A mental blackout by midfielder Ricardo Clark allowed England midfielder Steven Gerrard to steal in and slot home Emile Heskey's deft feed. And with England limiting the U.S. attack to half chances, there seemed no way back for the Americans.

But then England goalkeeper Robert Green handed the U.S. a lifeline, bobbling Clint Dempsey's seemingly innocuous shot over the goal line to give the Americans a priceless equalizer. Was it lucky? No question, but Dempsey wasn't about to offer up any apologies.

"This ball moves so much, if you hit it on goal you always have a chance," said Dempsey. "It's one of those goals where you say, 'Why can't I get one like that?' I'm happy to have scored in both World Cups that I've participated in."

Not only was all of England's hard work over the first 40 minutes wasted, but the goal allowed the U.S. to revert to the game plan that had worked so successfully at last year's Confederations Cup. This consisted of lights-out goalkeeping, heroic defending from all 11 players and enough of an attack to keep the opposition honest.

Such a performance from U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard has become something of the norm. But there was a point in the first half when it looked like he wouldn't be able to continue. A cringe-inducing challenge from Heskey, one in which his boot caught plenty of Howard's rib cage, looked set to end the goalkeeper's day.

"It felt like agony," said Howard of the collision. "I knew Heskey was going to slide in for the ball. He had every right to. Initially, I was in a lot of pain. I gave myself five to 10 minutes to get used to it."

Help in the form of a cortisone injection administered at halftime aided Howard's recovery, although afterward he indicated that he'll be examined by a doctor in the coming days. Still, the Americans were indebted to their goalkeeper's recuperative powers, as he stymied both Heskey and Shaun Wright-Phillips on second-half breakaways.

But the match wasn't just the Tim Howard Show. It also was highlighted by a massive performance by the team's defense, and in particular Oguchi Onyewu. The 6-foot-4 defender hadn't played a full competitive match in eight months. While he had some shaky moments early, he got stronger as the game went on, repaying the faith put in him by manager Bob Bradley.

"I know there were a lot of naysayers about my fitness and about my knee," said Onyewu. "I just really don't focus on that. I knew I'd be ready by the time the tournament started. In terms of my knee's fitness and going the full 90 [minutes], I think I've proven that."

The performance of the backline, as well as that of the midfield, helped put the clamps on England star forward Wayne Rooney. As the game opened up a bit in the second half, there were some moments when Rooney began to shake loose, but that was all the Manchester United striker was able to muster in what for him amounted to a quiet game.

"We watched a lot of tape on Rooney, and we know he's a big key to their team," said midfielder Landon Donovan. "You don't really completely stop a guy like that. You just hope to keep his touches limited, and I thought between our two midfielders and our back four, we did a good job of closing that space that he likes to come into in front of the back four."

Incredibly, the U.S. nearly found itself in a position to win the game when a surging run from Jozy Altidore saw him leave England defender Jamie Carragher in his wake, only for Green to touch the American striker's shot onto the post. That said, given the early deficit and the manner of U.S. comeback, a draw is a more than palatable result.

The biggest danger now for the U.S. would appear to be recouping enough emotional energy for its two remaining Group C games, as well as overconfidence. The Americans have done the hard work of securing an unexpected point in the standings. Now they'll assume the role of favorites against Slovenia and Algeria, a mantle they haven't always worn well.

Yet Howard was the first to admit that the result "wasn't pretty." Donovan bemoaned the team's inability to keep the ball. And Bradley has long excelled in being able to keep his team's collective feet on the ground. The current challenge would appear to be well within his managerial powers.

"We've had a good focus the whole time," said Bradley. "We've said it so many times that we understand what the first round is about, but we were still excited to start the World Cup playing against England. It's a big game and a big night, and overall we take away positive things as we now get ready for Slovenia."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.