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THE START THEY NEEDED
GRANT WAHL
June 21, 2010
On a historic night in South Africa, the underdog Americans matched England blow for blow, putting the U.S. team in position for a coveted spot in the knockout rounds
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June 21, 2010

The Start They Needed

On a historic night in South Africa, the underdog Americans matched England blow for blow, putting the U.S. team in position for a coveted spot in the knockout rounds

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At that point the U.S. could have folded as it had after allowing an early goal in its 3--0 loss to the Czech Republic in the World Cup 2006 opener. But the Yanks found their rhythm, moved the ball (surprisingly possessing it more than England in the first half) and set the stage for Dempsey's fortuitous equalizer. "For the 10 to 15 minutes after their goal, we controlled the game and got our confidence back," said DeMerit. "From there it was a dogfight." Whether he was shoulder-charging Rooney, leaping above him in a second-half aerial challenge (and earning a yellow card for a handball) or grabbing an occasional fistful of Terry's jersey on free kicks, DeMerit was in full junkyard-dog mode.

By the middle of the second half Rooney was moving deeper into the midfield. The U.S. defense didn't neutralize him entirely—Rooney squeezed off a dangerous shot from outside the box and had a couple of chances closer in—but the Americans held firm in the end. "There were times I could tell Rooney was getting frustrated," said DeMerit. "A player like that, the more he sinks into midfield, the more I know I'm doing my job. But it wasn't just me. Our midfield was cutting down his passing lanes, and all of us were negating his space." DeMerit and Onyewu had occasional communication issues, but considering they were playing 90 minutes together for the first time since last August, it was an encouraging debut against one of the top pre--World Cup favorites.

More work remained this week, of course, and yet it was clear that the U.S. is comfortable at the first World Cup held on the African continent. The Americans have visited South Africa three times in the last three years, and the U.S.'s group-stage games are all taking place at venues where it played during last year's run to the Confederations Cup final (Rustenburg, Johannesburg's Ellis Park and Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld Stadium). Not only is the U.S. riding buses to its first three matches, but nobody is caught off guard when, say, an elephant in the road causes a delay, an only-in-Africa moment that happened to the U.S. caravan twice last week.

The challenge for the Americans against Slovenia and Algeria will be to avoid a familiar refrain from the past two World Cups. In 2002 the U.S. followed sterling performances against Portugal and South Korea with an inexplicably flat 3--1 loss to Poland and only advanced to the second round thanks to the Koreans' win against Portugal. Likewise, in '06 the U.S. pulled out a memorable 1--1 tie against eventual champion Italy only to crash out in a 2--1 elimination loss to Ghana. "I've been through two World Cups where we've had a great game and then let down the next game," said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan after the England tie. "So I know that I won't let that happen, and I'll make sure the team doesn't let it happen."

If the Americans can take care of business this week, they'll raise the profile of U.S. soccer even higher, around the world and in their own country. When DeMerit heard U-S-A! chants drowning out the famous England supporters in Rustenburg, he almost couldn't believe his ears. "The best thing about this tournament so far is the unbelievable support we've been getting," he said. "I know people in Wisconsin who couldn't give two craps about soccer that are e-mailing me about how they're trying to find jerseys that they'd never seen before. We all understand it's up to us to continue to help that growth in America, where the more success we have, the more people are going to notice and care. That's what it's all about: trying to become a soccer nation."

Provide a few more World Cup thrills as they did against England, and it might just happen.

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