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Nelsen expected New Zealand to play spoiler

Former D.C. United defender led Kiwis in shock tie with Italy

Way before Ryan Nelsen even kicked a ball at the World Cup, he had a good feeling his All-Whites were capable of pulling off an upset.

New Zealand did just that on Sunday, tallying a shock 1-1 tie with world champions Italy.

"We are underdogs, but we have great unity in the team, and on a good day you never know what can happen," Nelsen told reporters back in May.

Nelsen, a former MLSer who appeared in 81 games for D.C. United from 2001-05 before joining England's Blackburn Rovers, was mammoth at the back in the Group F tie, blocking shots and pushing back wave after wave of Italian attacks.

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The team captain marshaled his defense with aplomb—and he had to, as New Zealand had taken an early lead in the match, which launched a unusually attack-minded Azzurri show.

Italy only eeked out an equalizer after a contentious penalty call. Though Tommy Smith clearly tugged Daniele De Rossi's shirt in the 6-yard box, the Italian midfielder clearly embellished the foul.

"There's wasn't a goal—it was a ridiculous call," Nelsen told reporters after the match.

Overall, Nelsen was unhappy with the performance of Guatemala referee Carlos Batres.

"If that's the best FIFA have to offer, then I'd hate to see the worst," Nelsen said. "He ruined the game. Every ball we put forward he blew the whistle even before there was contact."

Controversial officiating aside, Nelsen's side have tallied a historic result that puts them on equal footing with Italy in the Group F standings.

That New Zealand have shown up at the tournament to do more than just make up numbers may surprise some fans, but for those following the fortunes of the All Whites, a result against one of the world's best is perhaps not a complete shock.

The Kiwis' calling card is defense, having conceded only one goal in open play in their past six competitive matches. True, their qualifying confederation consists of minnows, but they edged out Asian favorites Bahrain in a two-legged World Cup play-in without conceding a goal.

"Around the world now, I think New Zealand are everyone's second-favorite team," Nelsen said. "It's a real Cinderella story."