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Mutual support clear in Pretoria

June 24, 2010
By Luke Cyphers
ESPN The Magazine

PRETORIA, South Africa -- In the hours before the opening kickoff, the U.S. soccer team knew there was something different about this game.

A squad accustomed to seeing rival fans outnumber and drown out its own supporters -- and that's during home games -- arrived at Loftus Versfeld Stadium for a critical match with Algeria as the centerpiece of a pro-American parade.

"The street was lined with U.S. supporters, waving flags, dressed up, chanting USA, knocking on the bus," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "We don't always have that. And to have that happen in a World Cup, in South Africa, I think I can speak on behalf of all the players, that was a really special feeling tonight."

On a memorable night, one of the most poignant scenes, one that ought to be etched in memory right along with Landon Donovan's iconic goal, will be the long goodbye the U.S. team said to its fans, who made up a good half of the 35,827 in attendance.

For five minutes, then 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, the players didn't want to leave the field. The fans didn't want to leave the stands. The supporters chanted and waved to the players. The players blew kisses back.

They'd both come a long way for this moment. They would milk it.

Brandon Ayers and his brother Nate, from Chicago, and their buddy Greg King, from Charlotte, N.C., all crossed time zones and hemispheres to be here on this night. They dressed in red, white and blue and painted themselves up properly. They were typical of the enthusiastic gathering of fans.

And atypical, too.

"I quit my job to be here," said a hoarse King. He had only three weeks of vacation. It wasn't enough for him to schedule his dream trip. So he gave notice.

"It was totally worth it, 100 percent."

Still, the U.S. team made King and his pals earn their delirium. About the 88th minute, Brandon Ayers was thinking, "We're going to run out of chances soon, we're going to run out of time."

And then Donovan made his run down the right sideline and cut toward the goal for the game-winning shot. When it hit the net, and Donovan hit the deck with his slide into the corner flag, "It went crazy where we were," King said. "Everyone went nuts. Everyone just started chanting. It was awesome."

The trio was heading off into the young night, to a pub where the Yanks fans were gathering. They looked ready for a long night.

And the players looked ready for a long tournament, with a level of support they've never felt before. "We know every time we step out on the big stage that the whole country is behind us," said captain Carlos Bocanegra. "We feel that."

Bradley was mostly his stoic self after the big win, but he seemed to appreciate that he and his team, and its fans, had accomplished something on this night. Together.

"To finish tonight with a great win, to go hand in hand with the kind of support we have," Bradley said, "that shows we're making big steps."

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.