"I feel triumphant!" said a young woman wearing a Landon Donovan jersey as she walked out of the Highbury Tavern this afternoon. American soccer fans felt triumphant indeed after the U.S. national team played to a 1-1 draw with England in a Group C World Cup match Saturday in South Africa. Much has been written about the unsatisfying nature of a tie in any athletic competition. But this was a glorious stalemate that gave the Yanks a clear path to the round of 16, earned them credibility on the international stage and perhaps created more believers among what is often a skeptical national audience.
The hundreds of fans who jammed into the bar were full of hope. One guy dressed as "Captain America," in complete super-hero regalia including a cape. "I'm sweatin' my butt off," the good Captain told me. "And check this out," the Captain then pulled down his shirt to show me a U.S. national soccer team logo tattoo. "It's brand new," he winced as he touched the design. "It really burns."
But it appeared not even Captain America could save Team U.S.A. which allowed Steven Gerrard to walk in and flick the ball past Tim Howard in the 4th minute. This brought familiar groans from those decked out in red, white and blue. There was a terrible sense of Déjà vu. In the first game of the 2006 World Cup, America conceded in the 5th minute against the Czech Republic and never really recovered for the rest of the tournament.
But the U.S. played inspired football for the rest of the first half. Clint Dempsey's left-footed blast in the 40th minute went off Robert Green's hands and Green watched helplessly as the ball rolled over the goal line. The Americans had created many more worthy chances that were not rewarded and deserved to score an equalizer.
The raucous crowd inside the tavern and in an outside tent (with a big screen TV perched on a dumpster, a more than adequate entertainment center for our purposes) agonized with each passing second in the final minutes. They hurled insults at close-up shots of the English players. "Rooney, go lose your hair somewhere else!" is the only one that's printable here. And then at last, the referee blew the final whistle with the match all square.
In an earlier telecast between Argentina and Nigeria, ESPN analyst Efan Ekoku mentioned that even at this level, not all goals need to be beautiful. "A scruffy one is more than acceptable." The scruffy tally by Dempsey may send the Yanks into the late rounds of the competition.
Posts from earlier Saturday:
9:30 a.m. -- Not one excruciating moment too soon, the wait finally ends today.
We who love the beautiful game have been counting down to June 12 for more than seven months, since the World Cup draw placed the USA in the same group with England and matched the two sides for their opening contest.
American soccer fans have never been as emotionally involved in a World Cup match as they will be this afternoon because we know our opponents so well. Many of us who have agonized for the better part of a calendar year over the prospects of the U.S. advancing past group play are also reluctant admirers or even full-blown supporters of some of the key members of England's national side.
We have spent countless weekend early mornings riveted by the long distance telecasts of the English Premier League, mesmerized by the exploits of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. We've adopted favorite clubs. We know their songs. And the names Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard are as familiar to us as Manning, LeBron and Kobe are to the rest of our sports nation.
Even if the Americans manage to get a draw today, it would grease the skids to the knockout round with winnable games against Slovenia and Algeria to follow. And if the U.S. can somehow defeat England, it would give the Yanks instant credibility as a legitimate world soccer power. It could also provide them with enough confidence to make a deep run as they did in last June's confederation cup which saw them defeat Spain and lose a close final to Brazil.
There's so much at stake. I can't wait.
12:55 p.m. -- Anyone who thinks soccer is irrelevant in the U.S. should be here with me at the Highbury in Bay View right now. There are between 400-500 people in the bar and in a special tent outside. They are decked out in team jerseys and flying the colors of team USA. I have a feeling the Americans will score first. The English back line is not the same without the injured Ferdinand. But I also think the U.S could then "bunker in" to protect the lead. That won't work against England's dangerous offensive threats. I'll check in at halftime.
2:35 p.m. -- When English keeper Robert Green spilled Clint Dempsey's left-footed shot in the 40th minute, a lot of beer spilled here at the Highbury. We are drenched but happy here with a 1-1 draw at half. The Yanks scored a soft goal but are richly deserving of the equalizer after dominating possession and creating many solid chances. Landon Donovan's Beckham-like services on set pieces have been remarkable. The US has recovered from and early lack of composure on Gerrard's 4th minute run and could take all three points in the end. I'll check in after the game.
Before arriving in Wisconsin, Mark was a TV sports director at stations in Greensboro, the Quad Cities and Fort Smith, Arkansas. He got his first job at the ABC affiliate in Syracuse during his junior year at Syracuse University where he majored in TV and Radio at the Newhouse School.
Mark is an avid fan of all sports. He covered the Packers at Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans and has also reported on the Final Four, the Daytona 500, the Rose Bowl, the NLCS and the PGA and U.S. Open golf championships. He covered the GMO for 20 years. Mark played soccer in high school and is a passionate supporter of "The Beautiful Game." One of his greatest experiences was attending a UEFA Champions League game hosted by Real Madrid at Bernabeu Stadium.
Mark was born in Philadelphia but has happily made the transition from cheese steaks to cheese heads and is thrilled to now call Wisconsin home. He is currently president of Concannon Communications LLC and working on projects involving, writing, producing, voice-overs and public relations.