PRETORIA, South Africa -- The table is set just so. A result beckons that would be consequential and memorable.
But the U.S. soccer team has been here before, staring at a first-round finale with passage to the knockout promised land dangling in reach. Maybe even more than you think.
And the Americans haven't been able to finish the job yet.
Everyone remembers 2002, the high-water mark of U.S. Soccer, when it blew away Mexico in the second round and was unlucky in a quarterfinal loss to Germany. But who remembers the fortuitous way second-round entry unfolded? With a win and a draw in pocket, the Americans needed a result against Poland in the group-play finale to secure passage. They looked rather tame in a 3-1 loss but were rescued by results elsewhere.
Go all the way back to 1994. That team of busy overachievers needed a result against Romania as the first round closed. Tony Meola gave up a goal at the near post, the offense went limp and the side had to be yanked from the breach by other results as well.
Of course, the more recent (and much more similar) scenario comes from Germany four years ago. Ghana was the opponent, and the United States needed nothing less that a win. Fortune abandoned the U.S. camp that day in Nuremberg as captain Claudio Reyna crumbled in an injury-giveaway double whammy, and a dubious penalty kick called on Oguchi Onyewu crushed any U.S. chances.
So, here they are again. Two draws in two matches in South Africa means the Americans remain squarely in the fight. The scenarios group-wide may be clear as mud, but the requirement for the U.S. team couldn't be any clearer: win or else.
Technically, a draw still might do Wednesday at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, near the U.S. embassy here and just up the road from the U.S. base camp in suburban Pretoria. But no one wants to count on England remaining so meek and asleep, as that scenario would require.
There is a shorter turnaround, with just four full days since Friday's stirring rally, the 2-2 draw with Slovenia. But U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey promises the effort will be fierce. Second round or bust has been the cry all along.
"We'll be ready to put in the same type of effort because this opportunity doesn't come along a lot in your life," Dempsey said. "Obviously, qualifying is difficult and we're in a good position right now, just like we were in 2006, where a win would have moved us on. We didn't succeed then so now we're trying to right the wrongs. We're not going to show any signs of fatigue, I can tell you that. We're going to leave our lungs and our hearts on the field."
That type of scrappy spirit is why Bob Bradley's team remains alive in South Africa, a tournament of upsets and the outrageous, to the point that it could even be called a tournament of nonsense. Whatever you label it, the door is ajar for mid-tier teams like the United States, as African nations and the bully boys from the European block are being punched around with little regard to status.
If the Americans can't take advantage, it's probably because the same old pox is undercutting the effort: that confounding propensity for sluggish starts. All the warning signs were there going into South Africa 2010, that this team would concede early leads. And it has happened twice in two matches. The American resiliency and response has been inspirational. But the question still stands: Why do the Americans need to be smack up against it, pinned to the business end of a potential death blow to summon the proper energy and commitment?
"It's something that's been with this team for a number of years now and it's not something we enjoy," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "But we seem to be very resilient and we start to play more to our strengths. What I mean by that is that we start playing direct and letting the boys up there kind of hit them in the mouth and push them around.
"That's not always on your mind when the game starts. We want to be a little prettier and a little flashy. We can all go around and say, 'Let's get an early lead,' but that doesn't always translate on the field. But, hopefully, with a little more concentration and maybe a little luck, we can get on the other end of the score early on."
Is there merit in perhaps being more direct? Jozy Altidore was quite effective in the second half Friday, knocking down balls and drawing fouls. He rose powerfully to redirect Landon Donovan's long ball on to Michael Bradley, who supplied the most memorable U.S. World Cup goal since John O'Brien stunned the Portuguese with his early smash in 2002. Perhaps the more direct approach wouldn't just be for the purposes of establishing something different stylistically; perhaps it could put the team in a different, more aggressive place mentally.
"You want to get into the rhythm of the game and get the ball on the ground, and there is something to be said for that," Howard said. "Maybe we can even mix it up better, but I don't think we're a direct long-ball team. I do think we have success, though, when we do that."
Whatever style the U.S. plays, lineup changes are certain. Robbie Findley took a second yellow in the tournament for, essentially, getting hit in the face with the ball. The maligned Malian referee believed, apparently, that Findley had intentionally handled the ball and cautioned the young forward. There is no appeal process except in cases where a referee has issued a card to the wrong person, so Findley will sit. He was fairly ineffective at any rate. Bob Bradley has hinted that Dempsey may play off of Altidore as a second striker, as he did in the second half Friday.
That means a fairly significant midfield shakeup, as Jose Torres seems unlikely to return after halftime removal Friday. Maurice Edu was sure and tidy in his 45 minutes alongside Michael Bradley. Or Ricardo Clark could be re-introduced.
If there is a choice on the outside, the options are vast: DaMarcus Beasley could see his first World Cup action. Or Benny Feilhaber could occupy the spot as he did against Slovenia. Stuart Holden could even see time, playing on the right while Donovan picks up the left.
If Bob Bradley keeps Dempsey in the midfield, Edson Buddle or Herculez Gomez would find himself in the starting striker spotlight.
Humbled by an initial loss, Algeria summoned a mighty effort to match England in a scoreless draw Friday, keeping the Northern Africans in the fight, too. They've yet to score at World Cup 2010, but they have ability. Much like the American team, the roster is built around types who may not be world soccer household names, but they play for good clubs.
Hassan Yebda (who plays at Portugal's Benfica), Karim Ziani (Germany's VfL Wolfsburg) and Nadir Belhadj (England's Portsmouth) all had good matches Friday, as they passed better and protected possession more dearly than their English opponents.
"They have some talented players and some physically gifted players," Bob Bradley said. "As they go forward and get the right numbers in the attack, they have the ability to create one-on-ones and go by you."
The United States advances with:
-- A U.S. win
-- U.S. tie and England loss
-- U.S. tie and England-Slovenia tie, and the U.S. maintains its +2 goals scored advantage
The United States is eliminated with:
-- U.S. loss
-- U.S. tie and England win
The United States advances and wins group with:
-- A win by a greater goal difference than England wins by
-- A win and England win by same goal differential while the U.S. maintains its +2 goals scored advantage
-- A win by two or more goals and an England-Slovenia tie
-- A win by one goal and England-Slovenia tie while scoring more goals than Slovenia