By Mike Collett
RUSTENBURG (Reuters) - A shocking howler from England goalkeeper Robert Green gifted the United States a goal as the two sides tipped to qualify from Group C battled to a 1-1 stalemate at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium on Saturday.
Green, 29, winning only his 11th England cap after being preferred to the vastly more experienced David James, will be haunted for the rest of his career by the mistake when he failed to routinely stop a low, bouncing 25-meter shot from Clint Dempsey after 40 minutes.
He reacted in horror as the ball squirmed out of his grasp and bounced away from him as he tried to prevent it crossing the line, crouching in abject mortification as it rolled into the back of the net to cancel out Steven Gerrard's fourth minute opener for England.
"It's one of those freak things that happens -- plenty of people have been talking about the ball this week. It shocked us a bit, but we'll get behind Robert," said Gerrard.
"I think the most important thing in your first game is not to lose. Unfortunately, we let a poor goal in and we couldn't go on and get the win."
It was the second time Green had endured a World Cup nightmare after becoming the first England goalkeeper ever to be sent off when he was red carded in a qualifying match against Ukraine last October.
He slightly redeemed himself in the second half when he forced a Jozy Altidore shot on to a post, but is unlikely to live down a woeful piece of keeping that could not be blamed on the unpredictable flight of the much criticized World Cup ball.
"Sometimes one player in front of the keeper misses a goal. Sometimes keepers make mistakes, that's football," said England coach Fabio Capello.
However bizarre, the goal was one the U.S. deserved after battling their way back into the match after Gerrard gave his side a dream start in the first World Cup meeting between the sides since the U.S. stunned England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup.
Capello had told his men to attack the from the start and they did just that, making the early breakthrough when a Glen Johnson throw on the right set up Frank Lampard who switched the ball infield to Emile Heskey whose angled pass found Gerrard running into space.
Gerrard evaded the efforts of Jay deMerit and gave goalkeeper Tim Howard no chance with a superb strike with the outside of his right foot.
Instead of taking control though, England drifted into a spell of unconvincing football and the U.S., sparked by the lively Dempsey and Landon Donovan, enjoyed most possession.
Their recovery led to James Milner being cautioned for a foul on Steve Cherundolo and five minutes later he was withdrawn by Capello and replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Capello also replaced King, who has a chronic knee injury, with Jamie Carragher for the second half, and later said the defender would miss the team's next game.
Although England tried desperately to regain the lead, the U.S. gave as good as they got.
In stark contrast to Green, American keeper Howard, who has played in England for Manchester United and Everton for the last seven years, had an excellent match and was perfectly positioned to save well from a powerful Emile Heskey drive.
With England's talismanic front man Wayne Rooney battling hard but making no impact in front of goal, England rarely looked like regaining the initiative, and their players slunk away, disappointed at the end.
In contrast the U.S. team applauded their fans in the stadium, who, though vastly outnumbered by England supporters, were left cheering loudest at the end.
"It was a great team effort to come back and equalize. At halftime we said we had a chance to win and at the end we took a point," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley.
Despite the draw, both England and the United States will be confident of getting positive results against the two weaker Group C teams Algeria and Slovenia, who meet on Sunday, to ensure their progression to the competition's next round.
(Editing by Michael Holden)