One of the more intriguing story lines coming into this summer’s World Cup centered on the enigmatic U.S. team. Would these Americans play like world-beaters, as they did in last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa when they beat top-ranked Spain to reach the tournament final?
Or would they flop, as they did in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when they gave up a goal five minutes into their first game and failed to get out of group play?
After the U.S. battled England to a 1-1 tie Saturday in its first game at this year’s World Cup, the jury is still out.
Although the U.S. never looked as sharp as it did last summer, it rarely looked as feeble as it did in the last World Cup.
The Americans did need some help getting on the scoreboard, however, their first goal of the tournament coming as a gift from England goalkeeper Robert Green, who wrote his name in his nation’s long soccer history by turning an easy save into a game-tying goal for Clint Dempsey in the 40th minute, likely costing England the win and two points in the group standings.
That helped erase a slow start by the Americans, who didn’t make it five minutes into this World Cup before falling behind on a Steven Gerrard goal.
The play started with a throw-in in the fourth minute, with the ball finding its way to striker Emile Heskey in the six-yard box in installments. But once the English forward got it, he knew what to do with it, slipping a deft pass to Gerrard.
And Gerrard took it from there, slicing between a pair of U.S. defenders to tap home the goal with his right foot.
England had a chance to double its lead in the 20th minute when Aaron Lennon got clear well behind the U.S. defense. But his pass from the right wing was broken up nicely by a sliding Steve Cherundolo.
That gave the U.S. a chance to even things just before the half on a monumental mistake by Green.
After making a series of nice moves to turn Gerrard around three times, Dempsey was free to take a left-footed shot from about 20 yards. But the ball headed straight at Green, bouncing twice as the English keeper slid over to make what appeared to be a routine save.
Instead the ball bounced off his hands, rolling slowly into the goal as a desperate Green attempted to crawl after it. That goal not only tied the game but it allowed Dempsey to join Brian McBride as the only U.S. players to score in two World Cups.
U.S. keeper Tim Howard, on the other hand, was clutch in goal, especially in the second half. Midway through the period he stuffed great scoring chances by Wayne Rooney, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Rooney again in a two-minute span.
And 10 minutes after the intermission Howard stepped in front of a Heskey rocket from just yards away to preserve the tie. All that came after Howard nearly left in the first half when Heskey slid into him cleats-first.
Howard remained on the ground, writhing in pain. But after taking a few minutes to gather himself, he remained in the game.
Inexplicably, neither of the giant scoreboards at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, just outside Sun City, was working Saturday, making it impossible for anyone in the crowd of 38,647 to keep up with the elapsed time of the game.
But it wasn’t hard keeping track of the score.
-- Kevin Baxter in Rustenburg, South Africa
Photo: Robert Green, right, fails to stop a goal by Clint Dempsey, second from right, during the World Cup group C soccer match between England and the United States at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa. Credit: Elise Amendola / Associated Press
For the record: An earlier version of this report identified England's Emile Heskey as Ernie Heskey.