Playing with a purpose
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- When the referee finally blew his whistle, when the emotional roller coaster of a soccer game finally came to a screeching halt, all Landon Donovan could do was lay there.
"I guess it's bittersweet," he said. "You want to win the game. But at the same time, we gave everything we had. I mean ... everything ... we ... had."
When he made his way to the locker room, Donovan would need an IV to replenish his fluids. Not far away, three stitches held together the gash on Brian McBride's left cheek. And Jimmy Conrad walked through the postgame interview scrum with a chunk of gauze poking out of his nose. And those were only the bumps and bruises that were visible. In a physically exhausting match with 37 fouls, four cautions and three expulsions, there assuredly was more.
But at least for a while Saturday night, no one on the U.S. could feel the pain. Despite losing two players to red cards in a span of two minutes, despite playing a man down for almost the entire second half, the Americans tied Italy 1-1 Saturday, keeping their hopes for advancing to the next round healthy and alive.
"These guys bled for our country and our team tonight," goalkeeper Kasey Keller said afterward. "Today was about the team."
It was the type of performance manager Bruce Arena had hoped for. All week long, he had harped to his players: Play with heart. Play with spirit. Play with a purpose. But most importantly, play to the absolute peak of your abilities, so that when the game is over you can sit in the locker room and look your teammates in the face with nothing but pride.
Saturday, that was more than the case. Though the outcome was a tie, one point in the World Cup standings rather than three, it was a performance that restored hope in the U.S. team. Five days after a deflating 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic, five days after Arena criticized almost his entire roster for its lifeless performance, the Americans outperformed one of the top teams in the world, playing for much of the game a man down.
"This was the team we knew we had," defender Jimmy Conrad said. "This is the group we all felt so confident about. And today, we showed a bit of our character and our pride, to nobody else but ourselves. We can look each other in the eye after this one."
For much of the afternoon, it seemed like a day of destiny for the Americans. First Ghana upset the Czech Republic, helping the Americans' chances of advancing out of Group E. Then once the players stepped on the field, they were greeted by a sea of red, white and blue. An overwhelming showing of fan support one U.S. soccer official called the greatest he had ever seen on foreign soil.
Italy scored the first goal, but then, in one two-minute span in the first half, Cristian Zaccardo booted a ball into his own net and Daniele De Rossi was served a red card for elbowing McBride in the cheek. The match was tied at 1 and the Italians were down a man. Things were going the Americans' way.
"I was thinking, 'here's the greatest two minutes in U.S. soccer -- an own goal and a red card,'" Conrad said. "Then we turned around and gave it back -- or the ref gave it back."
Seventeen minutes after De Rossi's ejection, in the final minute of the first half, Pablo Mastroeni was sent off for an illegal tackle, making the game a match-up of 10-on-10. And then, in the second minute of the second half, U.S. defender Eddie Pope picked up his second yellow card of the match, sending him off for good.
In the blink of an eye, a one-man advantage for the U.S. had devolved into a one-man disadvantage.
"Two red cards in a span of five minutes is pretty hard," Arena said. "There's no way you prepare a team to play 10-on-9 for 45 minutes in a World Cup against a team like the Italians."
For the remainder of the game, the U.S. would play with nine. Italy would have 10. Possession after possession, the Italians took their shots. Some were blocked. Some missed target. Some goalkeeper Keller snagged out of the air. None found the back of the net.
The Italians would have a corner kick in the 86th, 87th, 88th, 89th and 90th minutes -- and not score.
"When you're down a man you're the wounded tiger," Conrad said. "It almost brings the team together a bit. You play smarter. No me-me-me, no dribbling and trying to do it on your own. It's all about the team. We couldn't cover all those guys. There was way to much open space out there. So we just had to make the plays when they came to us. That was the mindset."
The goal was simple: Bend but don't break. Don't let the Italians score. One single goal and the Americans' chances of advancing to the next round would have been near dead. Thursday's match against Ghana would have become just about irrelevant. But it never happened. The American team effectively killed a penalty for 43 minutes, at one point springing DaMarcus Beasley loose for a shorthanded goal of its own, before the referee called it back after McBride was ruled offsides.
The tie, coupled with Ghana's upset victory over the Czechs, now means the U.S. can reach the second round with a win over Ghana and an Italian victory over the Czechs. But regardless of whether or not that's how it plays out, the Americans now have a performance they can be proud of. After the match, the U.S. locker room was a scene of high-fives, handshakes and pats on the back, a far cry from five days ago.
"I can't give enough praise to every single player who wore our shirt," Arena said. "We were the better team tonight -- a team that deserved a point."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org