A dreadful blunder by England goalkeeper Robert Green gifted the USA with a share of the spoils as Fabio Capello's side were held 1-1 in their Group C opener.
Steven Gerrard had given the Three Lions' World Cup campaign a flying start with a fourth-minute opener in Rustenburg.
England were holding that advantage until Green committed the kind of howler David Seaman, Paul Robinson and Scott Carson have all done down the years and allowed Clint Dempsey's harmless shot to slip through his fingers.
Capello could only watch on in horror and wonder why fate had dealt him such a shocking hand given he had preferred Green to David James and Joe Hart as his first-choice goalkeeper, dismissing the latter man for fear his inexperience would cost England in a similar manner to that the West Ham man actually did.
There was to be no atonement, even though England dominated at the end. And with one of his favourite sons, James Milner, hauled off after half an hour, Ledley King failing to return for the second half and his replacement Jamie Carragher getting himself badly exposed on more than one occasion, it will be an uncomfortable six days for Capello and his players before England try to rebuild their reputation against Algeria in Cape Town next Friday.
Capello resolved to start his World Cup campaign with Green in the problematic goalkeeping position and Milner on the left-hand side of midfield. Within three minutes he was wearing the broadest of smiles.
Glen Johnson and Frank Lampard were both involved in the initial stages of a move that ended with Emile Heskey doing what he does best, allowing a team-mate to score.
Usually it is with brawn. This time it was the silky touch of a delicate through ball for Gerrard, who had motored into the box. The new England skipper steadied himself, then tucked a precise finish under Tim Howard and raced away to the far corner flag pursued by a posse of ecstatic white shirts.
Rather than a majority of United States supporters, as had been suggested, the stadium was clearly packed with England fans, who celebrated with natural glee. Unfortunately, it was not long before the smiles turned to worried frowns.
England still kept creating chances. Lampard and Wayne Rooney tested Howard with a couple of speculative efforts, Steve Cherundolo turned away a teasing low cross from Aaron Lennon and Heskey almost got on the end of a Lennon ball into the six-yard area. But for all this, the United States were causing England a major headache.
They may have won the previous meeting so famously in 1950 but the stars and stripes boast a far more professional outfit these days and they quickly began to show how they reached the Confederations Cup final 12 months ago.
As so often, Landon Donovan was the architect of their best work, exposing Milner at the same time. Ill during the week, the Aston Villa man, one of Capello's favourites, was badly exposed and had already been booked for a foul on Cherundolo before he was
replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips.
The move was Capello's ruthless response to a growing number of threatening
American attacks, the best of which provided an open goal for Jozy Altidore when
he jumped for Donovan's free-kick, yet inexplicably missed the ball completely.
Another long-range Donovan effort had Green at full stretch before the moment
that will be repeated so often and the West Ham goalkeeper has to live with for
the rest of his life arrived.
Dempsey turned Gerrard neatly but was still 25 yards when he took aim. The new Jabulani ball made the effort worthwhile. There is no way it should have ended up in the net though.
Green could only bury his head in the ground as he came to terms with a fumbled
attempt to save that ended with the ball slipping through his grasp and
agonisingly out of reach as it bobbled over the line.
When England returned from an interval that must have included attempting to
raise Green's spirits, King had been replaced by Carragher.
But any thought the Liverpool veteran would shore things up at the back was
quickly dispelled as first he was booked for a foul on Robbie Findley, then he
was left for dead by Altidore, which at least allowed Green to redeem himself
with a fine save as he pushed the American's shot on to the post.
Prior to that, Heskey had failed to beat Howard having been sent through by Lennon. Heskey also wasted the last of three decent England chances; Lampard and Rooney did much better from much further out with the others as the Three Lions asserted themselves at the end without managing to fashion a winner.