LIANE HANSEN, host:
The United States' team kicked off its World Cup tournament in what was the most anticipated soccer game in American history. Though the final result, a one-to-one draw against England, might seem middling, it was actually a very positive outcome for the Americans.
From South Africa, NPR's Mike Pesca has more.
MIKE PESCA: To tweak a famous headline about college football, the U.S. beat England 1-1 yesterday. Here are the unusual conditions when a tie, a draw in soccer parlance, can feel more like a victory.
One: the team that scores last usually feels like it escaped. Yesterday, the United States scored last. Two: the team that was underdog feels fortunate to tie. The United States was the underdog. Three: when a team is mostly outplayed, it is grateful for the tie. And the United States played well but the English played a bit better.
It wasn't easy, especially after England established a 1-nil lead when their captain Steven Gerrard took advantage of a collapse of the American defense four minutes into the match. Then, 36 minutes later, this:
(Soundbite of cheering)
PESCA: From calm to chaos in the least remarkable of shots by American midfielder Clint Dempsey. When Dempsey got the ball with the half nearing the end, he put together some nifty moves a bit beyond the goal box and then launched an unspectacular shot at English keeper Robert Green. It was a ball that any junior varsity goaltender would've handled but Green misplayed it terribly. Afterward, Dempsey admitted to ESPN that it wasn't his greatest shot ever but it equaled his best result.
Mr. CLINT DEMPSEY (Midfielder, U.S. National Soccer Team): It's one of those, you always see people score and you go, hey, how come that never happens to me? And then finally it's the goal that probably the keeper should've made a save on, but, hey, they all count the same when they go in.
PESCA: Green vowed to soldier on, a task perhaps made easier by the fact that he's over 5,000 miles from London where the tabloids are portraying his gaffe as the hand of Claude.
Mr. STEVEN GERRARD (Goaltender, English National Soccer Team): It was, you know, a game that, you know, had a horrible mistake in it. You know, but mentally we're strong enough to carry on and that's what you deal with in games as a goalkeeper is these things happen.
PESCA: The halftime score 1-1 would hold up. England had its chances, but if Green was shaky in his moment, Tim Howard, his American counterpart, was stalwart. Howard cut down angles, Hoovered up solidly booted balls and shook off an injury that could have put him out of the game.
Goalkeeper was the one position where the United States had an edge in this game and the one spot on the field where the English don't have a world class player. During the match, English fan Andre Pollay(ph) stood near a stadium scoreboard, which worked for only two or three of the match's 90-plus minutes but Pollay knew the score.
Give me your assessment of each goal scored in the game so far.
Mr. ANDRE POLLAY: The England goal was good and the United States' goal was lucky.
PESCA: Pollay's not wrong but the comment offers an insight into a particular mindset that has taken hold among many English soccer aficionados, which is just about all of them. In England, goaltending is an unglamorous afterthought. Real football, this way of thinking goes, is played with a foot. But Tim Howard and the Americans showed that goaltending matters.
Howard, who's from New Jersey, has spoken admiringly about hockey's tradition of the entire team congratulating the goalie when the game ends. In soccer, he's treated as one of but 11, more specifically, the 11th. But yesterday, Howard earned the man of the match honors and the United States earned a deserved point as they continue on in group play against Slovenia this Friday.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, Rustenburg, South Africa.
HANSEN: NPR's got you covered for the whole month of play with our World Cup blog called Show Me Your Cleats. Come to NPR.org/Cleats to check in on scores, gripe with fellow lovers and haters of soccer, and to find out why we call the game soccer and not football.
You can also read Stefan Fatsis's account of living with the vuvuzela, the ubiquitous plastic horn favored by South African fans, what Stefan calls the happy soundtrack of South African soccer. Or why one Englishman living in the States thinks his nation's team is best compared to the Boston Red Sox. Visit NPR.org/Cleats and chime in.
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