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NU's Jones proud of Kiwis' tie

CHICAGO -- Northwestern assistant men's soccer coach Neil Jones was realistic about New Zealand's chances in the World Cup, so when Slovakia took an early second-half lead Tuesday morning, any lingering optimism seemed to evaporate.

Jones, a former New Zealand national player and a close friend with a number of the team's current players, knew it was a miracle New Zealand was even in the World Cup. It was the Kiwis' first appearance since 1982, the year he was born, and they would be a heavy underdog against Slovakia or anyone else in their group.

As the 90th minute drew closer, Jones began to concede New Zealand's defeat. He thought he had seen his team's last chance when Shane Smeltz's header went just wide of the net late in the match.

But in the third minute of stoppage time, Smeltz delivered a cross into the box, and Winston Reid put it into Slovakia's net with a header to give New Zealand a 1-1 tie.

Jones jumped off his booth seat at The Globe Pub in Chicago's North Center neighborhood, screamed in joy and threw his arms in the air next to Northwestern head coach Tim Lenahan, who did the same.

"At that point, I didn't think there was a chance," said Jones, who wore his white New Zealand national team jersey. "I thought when Smeltzy missed the header off Tony's [Lochhead] cross that was the only chance we were going to have. I thought that was it. But Smeltzy redeemed himself with a fantastic ball -- that was a world-class cross into Winston -- and what a fantastic header off the bottom of the post."

Jones said this opportunity for the Kiwis has brought out the spirit of nationalism in New Zealand.

"The nation is going crazy right now. For us, a small country of only four million people to pick up a great result like that in the World Cup is unbelievable. It's a week night, school night for us, but I'm sure there will be a couple people calling into their bosses tomorrow saying they have a slight hangover. To score basically on the last kick of the game is pretty crazy."

Just getting there was fairly crazy.

"This is an excuse for party time in New Zealand," Jones said before the game. "This doesn't come around very often. This is kind of an once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don't know if New Zealand will qualify again."

The Kiwis' accomplishment of earning their first-ever World Cup point was extra special to Jones, who went to UC Santa Barbara with Lochhead. Plus Jones used to train almost daily with starting forward Rory Fallon as teenagers.

"It's kind of different for me since I played with a lot of these guys," Jones said. "Aside from being a New Zealand person and a fan of the game and the country, I know these guys personally.

"I obviously played for the national team before, and New Zealand's my home, and I've represented my country playing soccer. Am I part of this win? No, but I feel a part of this because I know a lot of these guys."

Jones last wore the New Zealand uniform as a player in 2004, playing against Tahiti and Fiji during the qualifying stages for the 2006 World Cup. Both were wins, but it was the Tahiti one that he'll always remember.

New Zealand was leading 7-0 when Jones was called off the bench in the 65th minute. Seven minutes later, he scored his first goal when he controlled a cross off his chest and scored inside the box. Shortly after, he scored his second and final international goal.

"To end up scoring two goals in my first game was pretty cool," he said. "It was different. It was your first goal for the national team, and you kind of want to celebrate. But when it's 8-0, you don't want to celebrate."

Even though the result may not have been in doubt, the experience was still powerful to Jones.

"I was pretty nervous to be honest," he said. "Even though the result wasn't in question, I just wanted to go on and have a good performance. I was just proud to get in. To be able to represent your country at the highest level possible -- no matter if it's a 10-0 game against Tahiti or a World Cup game against Slovakia -- you're still representing your country. That was a proud moment."

New Zealand didn't qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and Jones decided to end his professional playing career in 2005. In January 2006, he accepted an assistant coaching position at UC Santa Barbara. He had been there until he was hired by Northwestern in May.

Jones said he hopes his New Zealand background can now help Northwestern's program.

"When you're growing up in New Zealand, it's a blue-collar country," Jones said. "Everyone works very hard and has a good work ethic. That was drilled into me as a kid. That's something I hopefully can bring to Northwestern."

Lenahan, whose Wildcats' program has been to five NCAA tournaments in the last six seasons, was glad to share Tuesday's game with his new assistant.

"Neil talked about it," Lenahan said. "I said, 'We'll go down even if you didn't support our team [the U.S.] on Saturday. We'll come down, wear the colors and support the team.' I'm sure with the England game behind us, he'll root for the American team. He better."

Scott Powers is covering the World Cup locally for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.