Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, a preview of Team USA's huge game.
Those five or six of us who obsess over American soccer even in periods when there aren't strings of national flags flying outside the bars have been waiting four years for precisely this moment: One chance for the U.S. team to play well, impress the world, and earn its way into the knockout round of the World Cup without requiring help from anyone else.
The last two times we advanced — the only two times we've advanced, I should say — we fans were chewing fingernails until the final seconds of the final match, waiting for other teams to win or lose or tie, or finish out penalty kicks, or extra-time speed chess, so that the FIFA mathematicians could whip out the abacus and begin to sort out the many permutations that advance one team over another. Things get so confusing that it was mathematically possible yesterday for South Korea to advance no matter if they won, lost, or tied. It was also possible that they would be eliminated if they won, lost, or tied. I have no idea how that's possible, but it is. That's why it's nice to control your own destiny.
The 2002 World Cup was our team's grandest showing ever. Team USA famously whomped Mexico in the second round and then nearly beat Germany in the quarterfinals (we absolutely outplayed them), but what few people remember is that in the team's final first-round match — a win-and-you're-in game against Poland not unlike today's match — our boys were steamrolled 3–1 and only advanced to face Mexico thanks to some South Korean magic in the waning moments of that team's game with Portugal. As my friend Grant Wahl has mentioned over at SI.com, the U.S. men's national team is 0–6 in its third and final first-round game at World Cups. That is depressing.
But today — so soon! Right now, even! — Landon and Clint and Timmy and all the other guys you hadn't heard of two months ago have a chance to erase all that bitter history and start anew. After the shameful showing at the 1998 Cup, U.S. Soccer launched Project 2010 with the goal of being competitive by 2010, which probably seemed like a long time away at the time. ("By 2010, we will fly our space cars around in celebration of America's world championship!") Well, it's now 2010, and I don't think anyone is ready to say we're a contender — I'm an irrational fan, but not a crazy one — but at least we can do something we've never done: win our final first-round game and play our way into the knockout round with some momentum.
Of course, it won't be as easy as some of your own irrational soccer fans have probably made it out to be. Algeria is good, and actually looked like the quicker, more skillful side against England (not that that's saying much at this point). The team has plenty of European-based players hardened in top leagues, and the confidence of having eliminated two-time defending African champion Egypt en route to qualification. Of course, the U.S. pummeled that same Egypt team 3–0 last summer at the Confederations Cup. And Algeria did lose 3–0 to Malawi at the African Cup of Nations (and later, 4–0 to Egypt).
The good news is that Algeria is a defensive team (as many, if not most, of the second-tier countries seem to be). They've yet to score a goal in either game. But because they're also not out of this thing yet, they need to score too. That means they can't sit back and defend, awaiting the occasional counterattack. (Which is what the Slovenians did, by the way. It may have seemed like they were all over us, because we played so horrifically in the first half, but in actuality, Slovenia had only two shots on goal in the first half. Problem is they scored on both of them.) Algeria will have to press forward, which should spread the field and create space for our two attacking midfielders, Donovan and Dempsey. I expect Bradley the Dad will pair Maurice Edu with Bradley the Boy, and that's an upgrade offensively and defensively. Edu is good at pressing and getting back and he's (generally) dependable enough that Little Bradley can push forward and join the attack. And that's when the U.S. is at its best.
The only real question I see today for Team USA is who starts up front with Jozy Altidore, who sat out practice yesterday with a "stomach ailment" but is taking his Imodium and promises to be ready by game time. Robbie Findley is out with two yellow cards (that'll teach him to let someone bounce the ball off his face), but that doesn't matter. He's more than replaceable, hopefully with Edson Buddle, who only got a few minutes of garbage time late in the England game. Buddle isn't likely to create any highlight reel goals, but the leading scorer in MLS is very good at doing what strikers do: be in the right place at the right time — to head in a cross or put away a rebound or at least occupy a central defender so that someone else can get open and score.
The truth is that Group C is messy enough that the U.S. can tie and still advance, with some help from the Slovenians and/or the English. But my feeling is this, quite simply: If the U.S. team can't win a game at the World Cup against a lesser opponent while 100 percent controlling its own destiny, it doesn't deserve to advance. If these guys can't beat Algeria, how the hell are they going to beat Germany, or Ghana, to say nothing of Argentina or Holland or Spain?
Oh, you wanted a prediction? I'm going with, 2–0, good guys.
And as for yesterday ... After just one day of the final first round games, six teams are through to the knockout stage, and only one of them is European. (That would be Holland.) France had a chance to salvage a smidge of decency in its final match against South Africa, but instead were outhustled and outplayed by the host country, which played with an admirable sense of urgency despite the almost insurmountable odds of advancing. For Bafana Bafana to survive into the second round, the boys needed to win by three goals or more, and have Mexico lose by at least two. And for a tantalizing few minutes, that actually seemed possible.
FIFA plays the final games of the group stage simultaneously so that one team's personnel and tactical decisions cannot be influenced by another's. Up to this point of the Cup, watching at a bar seemed like a luxury, but at this stage it's practically a necessity unless you have two TVs in the same room. I actually used picture-in-picture for the first time ever; focusing at first on Uruguay-Mexico, because it seemed like the better game, but soon I was giving more of the big picture to the South Africans, as they just kept kicking the French while they were down. I flipped over in the nineteenth minute just in time to see the South Africans score the first goal, causing Adrian Healey to comment, "The French nightmare goes on." You got the sense that these guys were about to implode, and they sort of did.
It went from bad to worse in the 26th minute when Yoann Gourcuff was red-carded for elbowing a South African in the head. Something weird happened; the camera lingered long on the French team's bench, which looked like a bunch of guys attending a wake ... and I actually started to feel a little bad for them.
Here's the way I would look at it if I were French: You weren't supposed to be here in the first place. There's a reason Irish bars across the world were giving out free drinks every time someone scored on France. Because maybe there is karmic justice. And if you cheat your way in, bad things could happen to you. I just didn't realize karma was this much of a bitch.
Not long after, the South Africans scored again, and then Uruguay scored, and for a stretch of time it was as compelling as first round, non-elimination soccer can be. I was swapping big and little pictures every few seconds, all the while keeping an eye on the online game-cast and live-blogs and exchanging texts with friends who were also watching. Over in the Uruguay match, Mexico's keeper saved a sure goal, then South Africa rattled a post, and had several other near misses, including one that Healey said would have drawn the team a penalty if the player wasn't "too honest for his own good." (Translation: He didn't dive.)
Then the French scored on a counterattack. Buzzkill.
Uruguay beat Mexico 1–0 but both teams advance.
The second set of games wasn't quite as tense, despite the fact that the winless Nigerians were technically still alive until the last-second of their 2–2 tie with South Korea. The African side was the better team for much of the game, and did just about everything right, except finish. (At one point late in the match a Nigerian missed an open net while standing squarely in front of it, maybe five feet out. It is almost impossible to miss in this position, and yet he did). It just wasn't meant to be, I guess, and they're definitely going to look back on this Cup as a missed opportunity. Or a series of them. Farewell, Super Eagles.
Meanwhile, Argentina started its B-team, which would be an A-team for about anyone else, plus Messi, who juked and dribbled and warped the space-time continuum again and again but still could not manage to score his first goal. But as in the other games, his failures were the gain for others, as one ridiculous series of moves led to a blast that a keeper deflected right into the foot of old man Martin Palermo, a 36-year-old who actually played on the same team as Maradona at one point late in the fat man's career. Palermo is a good story. He was saved from the reject pile after a ten-year absence from the team only to save the day with a goal in a downpour that clinched a berth in the World Cup, just when it seemed like one of the world's best teams would miss the tournament thanks to the bone-headed management of its coach. I think this explains why the hug he received from Maradona after the game lingered for an uncomfortably long time.
But why are we talking about teams that have already clinched? There's soccer to watch. Let's go USA!