Draw with England a lifeline for Team USA

BOSTON — It is a famous maxim of American football that “a tie is like kissing your sister.” But in the rest of the world’s game of football, a tie — or a draw as they call it — can be something far, far better, and even beautiful.

And in South Africa on Saturday, the U.S. opened its World Cup 2010 campaign with a 1-1 draw against England, a tie that, for the underdog Americans, was even better than kissing Angelina Jolie (or, if you prefer, Brad Pitt).

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The happy result against the favored English, 8th-ranked in the world, put the American team in good position to advance out of the first round for the first time since the 2002 World Cup.

Meanwhile, for England, a nation convinced that this team represented its best chance for a World Cup crown since its lone victory back in 1966, it represented a major embarrassment. While England remains likely to advance, it certainly didn’t appear championship-caliber.

Moreover, its superstar striker, Wayne Rooney, was largely stifled by a defense that is considered the U.S. team’s Achilles heel; suffice it to say that English babies born in the next few days are unlikely to be named Wayne and a knighthood is not yet in the offing.

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Before the game, much was made of how the Brazilian officiating team had been schooled in English obscenities, a potential American advantage given that Rooney has a tendency toward tantrum not to mention some choice verbal abuse for referees. But the first four-letter-word of the evening came out of mouths of the Americans, most visibly from goalkeeper Tim Howard, when his central defense pulled a disappearing act and England converted an easy goal in just the fourth minute of the game.

But by far the biggest obscenity was committed by English goalkeeper, Robert Green, when, late in the first half, he let a soft shot by American midfielder Clint Dempsey bounce through his arms and dribble into his net. It would be hard to imagine both the breadth and volume — “howler” was the Mirror’s choice, the Guardian went with “calamitous” — of the reaction in English homes and pubs. I am convinced that all the way across the pond, I could hear the word “wanker” echo like thunder from the heavens.

The tie was certainly not as big an upset as the last time the two teams met in the World Cup 60 years ago, when an anonymous band of Americans stunned the inventors of the game by a 1-0 score. But in England, a nation that has seen its empire shrivel, its influence wane and its sporting prowess decline to the decidedly second-rank, the result was certainly every bit as painful. And no doubt doom-and-gloom scenarios are now in fashion, a shock for English fans that have been disappointed in recent World Cups when their team couldn’t get past the quarterfinals.

For the Americans, the tie certainly appears to be a lifeline. After the 1950 upset, the U.S. national team did not reemerge on the world stage for four decades. But South Africa 2010 marks the sixth successive World Cup appearance for the Americans — with widely disparate results.

In 1990, 1998 and 2006, when the Americans lost to Czechoslovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic, respectively, in their openers, the U.S. team failed to win a subsequent game and headed home after the opening round. But when they got a result in the opening game, tying Switzerland in 1994 and beating Portugal in 2002, the Americans advanced into the second round (and all the way to the quarterfinals on the latter occasion).

Nobody who saw the game will confuse the American performance with a thing of beauty. But beauty is not in fashion in world-class soccer these days. Results are everything. Sure the U.S. team was lucky with the English goalie’s gaffe and equally fortunate that its own keeper, Howard, lived up to his reputation as one of the world’s best by keeping the game even.

American hopes are further bolstered by a fortuitous draw, with games ahead against two of the weaker teams in the tournament — vs. Slovenia next Friday and vs. Algeria on June 23. Moreover, it almost assures that England, now that it can’t win its first two games, will have to play its best team in its final, first-round game against Slovenia to try and win the group and, possibly, even to assure that the team advances.

Every glimmer of hope serves to feed the burgeoning soccer culture in the United States. Americans bought more tickets to this World Cup than anyone other than South Africans and 63,000 fans in Philadelphia gave the team a sendoff at its final home game. A few more results like this one against England and — in a nation of frontrunners — even more Americans will be brought into the fold.

It is always said of the World Cup that “the whole world is watching.” We may finally have reached that moment when the United States is no longer the giant, glaring exception.