Claudio Reyna fulfilled part of the American dream with the two goals that should ensure Sunderland's Premiership survival at the Stadium of Light yesterday.
The £4m midfielder, who will lead the United States in this summer's World Cup finals, struck twice in the opening 17 minutes to emerge as the decisive figure from what his manager, Peter Reid, had described as a "must-win match". But such is the nature of Sunderland's brittle confidence that they could never relax against First Division-bound Leicester City, who are likely to have the last rites read to them by Manchester United this weekend.
Astonishingly, this was the first time Sunderland have scored two goals at home since beating Leeds United on 18 November, when Europe rather than survival was the talk of the town.
And the Wearsiders can be grateful to Thomas Sorensen for second half saves – from Stefan Oakes and two from Paul Dickov – for guiding them through a distinctly edgy closing period. Sorensen, however, was outshone by Ian Walker in the Leicester goal, who made superb stops from Kevin Phillips and Kevin Kilbane.
However, a controversial decision by the referee Neale Barry that led directly to a Dickov goal for the visitors, kept the tension strung as tightly as a piano wire.
Sunderland have stumbled blindly down the Premiership table and in some ways this was an even bigger test than the win over Swindon in 1995 that kept them out of the Second Division – a result Reid still considers the most crucial of his seven-year reign. It is this season that counts though and two victories from the previous 14 games was hardly a charter for survival.
Sunderland looked jumpy yesterday, but Reyna's first-half double ensured that anxious home fans had something to cheer for a change.
Reid said: "Claudio was outstanding – a calming influence in a very tense situation. Even apart from his two goals it was a good job he was on the pitch. I don't think we are safe yet and we need a few more points. But that has given us a little breathing space."
It was as well that Reyna took control because Barry had earlier contrived to take matters into his own hands with one of those controversial decisions on which relegation inevitably seems to hinge.
The official overruled his assistant and incensed Sunderland by awarding Leicester a free-kick in the ninth minute for a foul by Darren Williams on Dickov when it appeared that Dickov had raised his elbow in the challenge.
Stefan Oakes made the most of the confusion by crossing into the box for Matt Elliott to get in a header, and even though Sorensen palmed the ball on to the post he could not stop Dickov running in his third goal in two games.
The hugely debatable equaliser wiped out Reyna's exquisite 25-yard, volleyed opener inside three minutes, but the American wasn't finished and he put Sunderland back in front after 17 minutes with a free-kick from even longer range – fully 30 yards – that even Walker could not reach.
Leicester's manager Dave Bassett said: "This was a big relief for Sunderland and I think they will have enough points in the bag to stay up. Peter Reid is one manager I don't mind losing to. But I was pleased with our spirit and attitude. We are going down fighting."
Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen 7; Williams 6, Craddock 7, Bjorkland 7, Gray 6; McAteer 7, McCann 7, Reyna 8 (Thirlwell, 84), Kilbane 6; Quinn 7, Phillips 7. Substitutes not used: Macho (gk), McCartney, Butler, Mboma.
Leicester City (4-4-2): Walker 8; Rowett 7, Elliott 7, Sinclair 5, Marshall 6; Savage 6, Izzet 5 (Ashton 6, 35), Oakes 6 (Piper, 60, 6), Reeves 6 (Stevenson 6, 72); Deane 6, Dickov 7. Substitutes not used: Price (gk), Heath.
Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe) 5.Reuse content