by Nancy Armour
RUSTENBURG, South Africa (AP)—You want an America’s Team to get behind, America? Here you go.
Scrappy, determined and not about to back down to anybody—not even big, bad England—the U.S. men hung on for a 1-1 draw at the World Cup on Saturday night that was every bit as good as a blowout victory. It’s the kind of effort the USA loves, and it might just give the Americans the major-league status they’ve been fighting for the last, oh, 20 years.
|REPRESENTING U.S.A—National soccer team goalkeeper Tim Howard, left, laughs as forward Jozy Altidore, right, looks on, during a news conference in Irene, South Africa, June 10.
Or at least get them a lot closer.
“We fought our way back into this game, and that’s what our team is all about,” veteran defender Steve Cherundolo said. “We fight for every inch of playing field there is.”
Fans have insisted for years that soccer is on the verge of becoming America’s game and critics have always shot back with “Oh yeah. When?”
Kids have been playing for more than a generation now, and still the game is well below the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball on the U.S. sports Richter scale.
But it is growing and gaining interest, there’s no denying that.
More tickets for this World Cup were bought by Americans than fans in any other nation except South Africa, despite the considerable expense to get here. Before the game, Americans marched proudly through the streets outside the stadium, dressed in red, white and blue from their Uncle Sam-hatted heads to their toes.
Back home, the World Cup is getting the kind of wall-to-wall TV coverage usually reserved for the other football’s big event, the Super Bowl. People went out of their way to watch the match, some from the comfort of their homes, others at bars and restaurants.
America’s team didn’t disappoint.
Part of the reason soccer has been so slow to take off in the United States—aside from the fact that, for much of the last century, the national team was about as good as Albania’s—is that it’s nothing like “our” football. We’re used to big, tough guys grinding their way to down the field. We revel in the game’s big hits and its brute physicality, and revere players who are only missing the proverbial lunch pail.
The U.S. men may not have the shoulder pads and helmets, but they have the same mentality—and similar battle scars.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard will be feeling Emile Heskey’s shoes on his bruised ribs whenever he breathes the next few days. The England forward slammed feet-first into Howard’s chest in the first half, a pain Howard described as “agony” and that left him writhing on the ground for several minutes.
Yet Howard played on, and it was his big saves more than anything that ensured the Americans would finish as England’s equal. For one day, at least.
“We’re a resilient side,” said Howard, who was named the man of the match. “We’re a tough side, and on our day, we can put a good performance in.”
Make no mistake, England is a better team. Just as Spain was last summer, when the Americans upset the reigning European champions at the Confederations Cup. After Steven Gerrard scored in the fourth minute to put England up 1-0, most people figured the game—or at least the result—was a done deal.
But there’s something about adversity that brings out the best in this team, a trait near and dear to every American’s heart.
“The funny thing is, we talk about ‘Don’t concede early, Don’t concede early.’ And man, it’s been our trademark lately,” captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “Credit to our guys to stick to the plan and keep fighting.”
Some of the English players used the word “luck” to describe the draw, and they may be right. England goalkeeper Robert Green did muff Clint Dempsey’s 25-yard shot that tied it up, after all.
But 50 years from now, when fans are remembering the day when American soccer’s fortunes turned, the result is all that will matter.