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U.S. showed true grit

June 13, 2010
Hirshey By David Hirshey
Special to

Well, I called it. I had predicted the U.S. would score a goal against England; I'd just figured England would score a few more and Fabio Capello would have the sense not to start Bill Buckner Jr. in goal. I don't know when President Obama worked this out with Prime Minister David Cameron, but that tying goal was a pretty good down payment for whatever recompense England has to pay for the BP oil spill. Come to think of it, that's probably what Robert Green treats his gloves with.

Still, U.S. manager Bob Bradley and his team have to like where they're sitting -- with a point after the first match and two sad-sack opponents ahead. England, meanwhile, found a way to enhance its reputation as world-class chokers -- this time before the quarterfinals and without the need for penalty kicks. It's all part of manager Fabio Capello's ongoing strategy to practice melting down early so that should England get into the later rounds, it'll have fine-tuned its ability to collapse.

The U.S. admittedly got lucky but played well enough to deserve its good fortune. After all, had the post not leaped out and saved Green in the 66th minute, Jozy Altidore would have made it 2-1 and the England keeper would have been placed on suicide watch.

Green's counterpart, Tim Howard, was wearing bomb-defusing hazmat orange. Now, if only he had the protective padding of those "Hurt Locker" suits, it might have prevented him from getting gored like Spanish bullfighter Julio Aparicio, a studs-up assault that could have left him with a broken rib. It is a testament to Howard's heroic grit and medical science (he took a painkiller shot at the half) that instead of going off injured, he shook off Emile Heskey's nasty challenge and showed why America is the world's greatest exporter of Bruce Willis films and brave, sure-handed keepers.

Although the U.S. defense was considered more vulnerable than a baby seal with one flipper, Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu took turns stuffing Wayne Rooney into their respective satin pockets, neutralizing the man whom England captain Steven Gerrard recently anointed the New Pelé. Of course, Gerrard didn't specify which Pelé he had in mind -- the one who ran riot in the 1970 World Cup, or the Pelé who will turn 70 in October?

Rooney woke up in the 71st minute and played his snarling brand of Tazmanian Devil-like soccer that very nearly salvaged the game for England. Had he been as menacing in the first half, when England had its collective boot on America's throat, Green's (West) ham-fisted bobble would have been a subject for locker-room teasing rather than what the British tabloids instantly immortalized as the Hand of Clod.

So where do these teams go from here? England must do a little soul-searching and remember that having a superior pedigree doesn't mean you can play only four dominant minutes and then phone in the rest. At least not against a team that showed the kind of resolve and fighting spirit that the original Tea Party did back in the day. When Gerrard scored in the fourth minute, I was convinced that the U.S. had soiled its pants just as it was in the opener four years ago, when Jan Koller scored in the fifth minute to trigger a Czech 3-0 beatdown.

Happily, I was wrong. It's now clear that Bradley has added some steel to the team's spinal column that was missing in both France '98 and Germany '06. Perhaps the U.S. team, like the dollar, just doesn't travel well in Europe. The Americans still must improve -- the Altidore-Robbie Findley partnership seemed disjointed, and Carlos Bocanegra was burned several times by the speed of Aaron Lennon. But if they can get out of the first round, they'll be a tough out.

Of course, the Yanks cannot continue to rely on the generosity of their opponents because, as the English fans sang at the beginning of the match, "There's only one Robert Green."

David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."