Even 12 years later, Ricardo Clark vividly remembers that bus ride to Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa.
The US men’s national team were en route to their 2010 World Cup opener against mighty England. At 27 years old, Clark had a solid career to that point, winning a Supporters’ Shield with the San Jose Earthquakes and a pair of MLS Cups with Houston Dynamo FC.
He was named an MLS All-Star for three consecutive years and MLS Best XI once before making a move to Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Bundesliga.
But this was his first FIFA World Cup experience and Clark’s mind was racing as he dealt with a whirlwind of emotions.
He thought about the journey to South Africa, the sacrifices his parents and he made to get him on that bus, the anxiety of a first World Cup experience, the realization that his World Cup debut was coming against England.
“With everything going, I was trying to remember exactly your tactical approach and what the coaches want from you and your player responsibilities on the field,” Clark, a midfield starter, told MLSsoccer.com. “So it's a lot to take in, especially for me, a first-time player in the World Cup.”
The gameplan laid out by USMNT manager Bob Bradley, according to Clark, was “geared toward keeping a tight block, being together on the field, being hard to play against, being compact, trying to catch teams, especially good teams like that, on the counter attack.”
The US were heavy underdogs. After all, this was England. At the World Cup. The Three Lions featured global superstars like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the midfield and Wayne Rooney in attack. Every player in Fabio Capello’s squad competed in the Premier League.
No one expected the USMNT to compete with England, which reached the quarterfinals in both 2002 and 2006 – only further fueling Bradley’s side in the buildup.
“An English-speaking country that invented the sport, you always kind of know that English players and English coaches, they talk bad about or look down upon the American soccer fans and players,” Benny Feilhaber told MLSsoccer.com. “That was definitely something in the back of everybody's mind.”
The greater motivation, though, came from knowing a result in the opening match of the World Cup is paramount to escaping the group stage.
Four years earlier in Germany, the US opened the World Cup with a 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic. They finished last in Group E.
“It was the first game of the World Cup. It was against, theoretically, the best team in the group,” said Feilhaber, who's now the head coach of Sporting Kansas City II in MLS NEXT Pro. “So for us, it was just about getting a good start and obviously competing, but getting something out of the game.”
The mood in the US camp ahead of the World Cup was quiet confidence, a belief the plan Bradley laid out would yield the necessary results to reach the knockout stage.
And then, almost as quickly as the World Cup had begun for the USMNT, they were in a 1-0 hole, courtesy of Gerrard's goal in the fourth minute. The Liverpool legend got a step on Clark before beating goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Feilhaber knew the US needed a response, and while he’s unsure who sat next to him on the bench – he believes it might have been Stuart Holden – he vividly remembers what he said.
“Maybe if it’s something like a mistake or something lucky, we just need to get something so we can get back into this game,” he said. “I literally said that five minutes before the goal.”
The goal was Clint Dempsey’s fortuitous 40th-minute equalizer, spinning to free himself from Gerrard’s marking before bouncing his attempt from distance that caromed into the net off England goalkeeper Robert Green.
It wasn’t the greatest of Dempsey’s 57 goals for the USMNT, but it was one of his most memorable because of the stage. And it sealed their now-famous 1-1 draw, with neither team able to score in the second half.
“When you're a kid that's the biggest stage, it’s what I dreamed about, trying to be in the World Cup,” said Dempsey, a Fulham forward at the time. “And to be there playing against England, the country that I was playing in as well, it was just a special moment.”
Dempsey shared his memories of that moment during a CBS Sports roundtable discussion with Green, former England defender Jamie Carragher and host Kate Abdo in September.
Green remembers the World Cup ball (adidas Jabulani) being difficult to read, especially on the bounce, though he didn’t offer that up as an excuse for his gaffe heard around the world.
“I could just feel my hand curving over because I was trying to keep the ball down. I didn’t, and then momentum carried it, took it over,” he said. “From that point on, it's kind of like, right, it's happened, refocus, get back on the game because there's only one thing worse, and that's do it again. So you have to get on and get on with the rest of the game.”
The goal was Dempsey’s second of four World Cup goals. And the nature of how he scored the goal made him think back to his sister Jennifer, who died from a brain aneurysm when she was just 16 years old in 1995.
“Really, throughout my whole career, that's the only situation that was kind of like divine intervention … there was something special there in terms of why that goal kind of went in,” the former Seattle Sounders FC and New England Revolution forward said.
As kids growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas, they talked about what would happen if one of them died and if the surviving sibling would want a message from the afterlife.
“I just remember saying if that ever happened, like maybe you could help me out in a game or something like that,” Dempsey said.
Clark said the goal gave the US belief, which they carried with them into the second half. Jozy Altidore came close to the decisive goal, but his attempt was saved off the post by Green.
“I think we came out in the second half, if I remember correctly, with a lot more vigor and a lot more on the front foot,” said Clark, who's now a Vancouver Whitecaps FC assistant coach. “You could see guys growing into the game very well and taking advantage of opportunities when plays opened up. It was a moment where we grew into the tournament early and it showed.”
In ensuing Group C games, the USMNT rallied from a two-goal first-half deficit to earn a critical 2-2 draw with Slovenia on goals by Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. They then dramatically clinched their Round of 16 berth and the top spot in Group C on that stunning Donovan stoppage-time goal against Algeria, a 1-0 victory.
“In the end, I think that point gave us the confidence to go and get results in the next two games,” Feilhaber said. “And obviously the point itself was invaluable to take first place in the group. So it was a good feeling after the game, no doubt.”
Here we go again
While the competing countries are the same Friday at Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo), there may be more differences around this third-ever World Cup meeting between the United States and England. Aside from the 2010 draw, Joe Gaetjens' goal at the Brazil 1950 World Cup sealed the Yanks' 1-0 win over the Three Lions.
This time, it’s the second match of the group stage – and while it's argued this is the greatest-ever collection of USMNT players at a World Cup, it’s also a young squad, devoid of World Cup experience outside of Inter Miami CF defender DeAndre Yedlin (Brazil 2014).
“It's a different team, a different approach to the game, different England team. For me, I don't know if it's fair to say, but I think this team is a little bit more dynamic, a little bit more explosive, a little bit better in my opinion in terms of quality,” Clark said.
“So it'll be a tough matchup for sure. Hopefully they can regroup and get those first-game jitters out of the way and get that first-game experience under the belt quickly to turn it around and just go at it, man.”
Feilhaber would love to see history repeat itself on Friday, because the USMNT would have a chance to advance against Iran on Nov. 29.
“You can pick up another point against England and have it all to play for, kind of like what we did in 2010 and you set yourself up,” the MLS Cup 2013 winner said. “Really the second game is about making the third game matter. You just don't want to be out. … You got to make sure you stay alive.”