Why the U.S. will win
The task at foot against Algeria tomorrow is simple: win and the Americans are in. Win big, and they're even likely to finish first in their group. (Plus, given their last match, it can't hurt to load up on some spare goals in case a referee starts hallucinating in the penalty area.)
And while I'm not dumping Gatorade on my Landon Donovan action figure just yet, here are five reasons why I'm keeping some on ice.
1. Algeria already played its best game
It's highly doubtful that the Desert Foxes can produce a more impressive performance than they did against those classic colonial oppressors, England, whom they outplayed, out-thought and outmuscled. And let's face it, Algeria benefited greatly from playing an insipid, uninspired England team that did its best to make Algeria look better than advertised. After all, this is the same gaffe-prone, wild bunch that hacked, gouged and elbowed its way out of the African Nations Cup, losing 4-0 to Egypt in a match in which three of its players were sent off. This is a team that embraces red cards the way Jesse James woos biker chicks. What are the odds that Algeria can keep its highly volatile personalities in check for a second consecutive game, especially against guys like Clint "The Elbow" Dempsey and Michael Bradley, who like to hurl their bodies around the field as if they were inside the Octagon.
2. The U.S. has yet to play its best game
Bob Bradley's boys have certainly played a good 90 minutes -- just not in the same match. Their stirring 45 minutes against Slovenia (lit by Donovan hitting the roof of the world) and resilient half against England (when God may have saved the Queen but not Robert Green) came in the respective second halves, after the U.S. had evinced its usual American generosity to lesser nations in the first halves.
The lack of focus for the U.S. at the start of the past two games has caused the red, white and blue to fall behind and appear in disarray, and that's a streak that must end on Wednesday. And in the Would The Rest Of You Like To Show Up Department, this would be as good a time as any for Jozy Altidore to display why Coach Bradley has kept faith in him as the spearhead of the U.S. attack.
Other than his muscular knockdown to set up the Michael Bradley equalizer against Slovenia, Altidore's goal-scoring touch has been as visible as Tim Howard's hairline. He hasn't put the ball in the back of the net in a meaningful game since September 2009. Against a team that has recorded only one shutout in its World Cup history -- and that was in its last game against England -- Altidore needs to show he's more than just an American synonym for Emile Heskey.
3. The Americans are fighting with the officials, not with each other
Unlike the internal meltdowns affecting France, England and Italy, the only cacophonous notes emanating from the U.S. have come against the referee. And while Oguchi Onyewu, Ricardo Clark and Jay DeMerit shared culpability for the three surrendered goals, there's been nary a whisper of Lohan-family discord from the American locker room. Presumably they're saving their considerable firepower for their opponents.
4. Bob Bradley can coach with the big boys
For all the talk of Chile's Marcelo Bielsa and his formations that skirt the razor-thin line between all-out attack and defensive suicide, or Brazil's Dunga and his faith in hard-nosed soccer at the expense of crowd-pleasing entertainment, we must salute BB for two well-designed game plans. And props, too, for his halftime speech against Slovenia in which he must have channeled Al Pacino in "Any Given Sunday": "We are in hell right now, gentlemen believe me and we can stay here and get the s--- kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light."
On second thought, maybe he just said: "We have to make a few adjustments."
Against England, Bradley deployed Donovan and Dempsey as wide midfielders, though both of them crunched into the middle when England had the ball so that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard had little room to operate. Wayne Rooney, who single-handedly defines the English "attack," was reduced to the role of an expletive-spewing bystander.
And for the Slovenia match, Bradley gambled with the not-ready-for-prime-time Jose Torres and lost, but brilliantly fixed things at halftime, adding hard man Maurice Edu (who scored that goal) to bring steel to the midfield while moving Dempsey up to striker, where his physicality and work rate helped the team seize control of the game.
The Algerians bring a different look -- three-man defense, attacking fullbacks and plenty of speed and skill on the wings -- but based on the past 180 minutes of action, we can assume that Bradley The Elder knows just what to do. At a time when so many World Cup managers are desperately second-guessing themselves just to keep their teams in the competition, Bradley's unwavering confidence is massively reassuring.
5. John Wayne is an American
The Duke's last classic film, "True Grit," exemplifies how this team is playing. Starting with the opportunity to crumble utterly during the Confederations Cup, the U.S. thrashed Egypt to squeeze into the semis, handed Spain its first international loss in three years and went up 2-0 on the vaunted Brazilians in the final (then the clock struck midnight, but that's a different tale). Just one year later, this same team has stormed back from a fourth-minute deficit against mighty England, and an even deeper 2-0 hole versus a superbly disciplined Slovenia outfit. In other words -- don't mess with true grit, pilgrim.
6. Koman Coulibaly will not be refereeing the game
Sorry, this reason was just red-carded by the officials. No explanation given.
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."