U.S. has destiny in its own hands
PRETORIA, South Africa -- Another World Cup, another scenario in which the U.S. has its destiny in its own hands. The question is: Will the Americans seize the moment and advance to the knockout stage, or will they suffer an early exit for the second tournament running?
The circumstances are simple: Beat Algeria and the U.S. is in the second round. Even a tie, combined with the right result from the England-Slovenia match, could allow the Americans to progress.
But this position is one the U.S. has faced before and fallen short. Four years ago, the Americans found themselves in another win-and-you're-in situation, only to fall to Ghana 2-1. In 2002, the U.S. appeared to have blown its chance of advancing by losing to Poland 3-1, only to make the second round thanks to South Korea's defeat of Portugal.
This is a habit the U.S. needs to break if it is to move into the upper echelon of teams. The Brazils, Germanys and Italys find ways to win games when the stakes, expectations and pressure are highest, even when they're not playing their best.
"In the two World Cups I've been a part of, we haven't strung together three consecutive good results and good performances," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "I think this team has the experience and the ability to do that. We'll find out on Wednesday night, but I think [we're] as prepared as we can be for what's ahead of us."
Standing between the U.S. and the knockout round is an Algeria side that entered the tournament as a complete wild card. On their good days, the Desert Foxes have the ability to beat anyone, as evidenced by their playoff victory over bitter rivals Egypt in World Cup qualifying. They're also capable of losing to anyone, as shown by their 3-0 loss to Malawi at January's African Cup of Nations.
Yet in this World Cup, Algeria has played with a great deal of discipline and defensive steel. In fact, were it not for a Robert Green moment from goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi in the opening game against Slovenia, Algeria would have recorded two clean sheets in this tournament.
The team's defensive resilience starts with center backs Rafik Halliche and Antar Yahia and is aided by holding midfielders Hassan Yebda and Medhi Lacen. Outside backs Madjid Bougherra and Nadir Belhadj are both solid defensively while doing plenty to augment the attack.
But the Algerians have struggled going forward. While they get into their opponent's final third well enough, the finishing touch has let them down. That said, Algeria -- which must win to advance to the second round -- can still cause the U.S. problems.
"When you look at the whole team, they have a lot of different threats," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "[Karim] Ziani, who plays at Wolfsburg, is a creative player who can stay wide, and he can come inside and find dangerous spots. There's Belhadj coming from the left, so there's threats coming from a lot of different places."
Another dangerous player is Bradley's club teammate, Karim Matmour. Matmour played as the lone striker in Algeria's 0-0 draw with England, but with the return of forward Abdelkader Ghezzal from suspension, he'll likely return to the attacking midfield role he occupied against Slovenia.
"They'll look to use Matmour's speed to run by defenders, to get in shots and crosses," Bradley said.
Stopping Algeria will require a defensive consistency that the U.S. has found elusive so far. It has been vulnerable early in matches, with two of the three goals conceded coming before the game was 15 minutes old. It's believed that the cure is to reprise the aggressive stance the U.S. took in the second half of its game against Slovenia, when the team rallied from a 2-0 deficit to salvage a draw.
"As a team, we've showed that if we get in teams' faces and put them under pressure, we can make anyone's day difficult," defender Jay DeMerit said.
Yet it's imperative that this aggression be channeled in the right way, without leaving the U.S. vulnerable to Algerian counterattacks. That's where the skill of players such as Ziani and Matmour is most dangerous.
"We just have to manage the game and see how it goes," midfielder Clint Dempsey said. "I think they're going to be the same -- stay compact defensively, pick and choose their moments when they get forward. But then say it's 0-0 in the 65th to 70th minute, then you're going to see the game open up."
That will be the moment when players like Dempsey and Donovan will need to step to the fore. Both players have enjoyed excellent tournaments, and chances are whatever attacking success the U.S. has will flow through them. They, along with Bradley, will be counted on to set the emotional tone for the team.
"We're going to leave our lungs and our hearts out on the field," Dempsey said.
The U.S. will be hoping it won't be for the last time at this World Cup.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.