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.
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
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
"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
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
"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?
"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.
That means a fairly significant midfield shakeup, as
If there is a choice on the outside, the options are vast:
If Bob Bradley keeps Dempsey in the midfield,
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.
"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