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There for the taking

"Go for the glory, go for the score. ... Go for it. CONNECT FOUR!" -- 1980s Connect Four jingle.

Admittedly opening a preamble to the most important American soccer game in four years with a bit of Saturday morning 80s nostalgia might not be the most prudent idea I've ever made writing this blog.

For whatever harebrained reason, that deceptively simple yet savvy children's game jingle has been bouncing through my mind for the last three days as the countdown clock toward 2010 U.S. soccer Ecstasy or Armageddon ticks down to Wednesday morning in Pretoria, South Africa, against Algeria, either.

It doesn't matter that the U.S. gave up a fourth minute to Steven Gerrard in the England game.

It doesn't matter that the ref from Mali disallowed a perfectly fine goal vs. Slovenia.

It doesn't matter than the U.S. gave up the opening goal in its first two matches at the 2010 World Cup.

It doesn't matter who Bob Bradley brought to South Africa or who he left home.

It doesn't matter the U.S. has never won the third group stage game of a World Cup.

Everything since the final whistle in Nuremberg, Germany four years ago has been building to this moment. The U.S. controls its own fate toward advancing into the knockout rounds at the 2010 World Cup. Doesn't matter what England and Slovenia do in Port Elizabeth.

Win and the U.S. is in.

And if they win, just like the Connect Four board, we pull a lever and everything is reset. It won't matter how the U.S. got there ... as long as they do.

Nobody wins the World Cup in the Group Stage. The only nations that get hung up on the groups are the ones eliminated in it.

The U.S. isn't even a place where if they advance they'll be kicking themselves about who they're crossing over against from Group D, either. (More below)

In the wake of Koman Coulibaly's dreadful call that waved off Maurice Edu's goal, the U.S. actually has a lot of sympathy votes. People that usually wouldn't care about soccer are probably ticked off an American team got jobbed over by the refs.

For the first time since the 1994 World Cup on home soil, the general American sports public is aware of this team's existence and will be paying attention to the result. People -- not just ESPN execs -- want this team to advance and play at least one more game this weekend.

A loss, and hey, typical U.S. soccer letdown, right?

International soccer is all about pressure, it seems, these days. That's part of the reason why the playing field has leveled so much. The media and fans expect the big teams to crush the minnows like the old days, when in reality those days, the occasional Portugal 7-0 beatdown on North Korea aside, are long gone.

It's not easy to step onto the field on the World Cup when everyone at home expects you to win 10-0, with a goal in the first minute.

Algeria come into this game fairly, in the parlance of Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, "Loosey, goosey."

Nobody expected the Desert Foxes to still be alive going into the final group game, at least not when you look at their pre-tournament form. We all wrote down Algeria as 2007-08 Derby County-like automatic three-points*. Call it the house money cliche, but Algeria figures to be playing fast and loose ... and confident after basically pushing the entirety of England into Defcon Five panic mode.

* Hey, I was wrong on Algeria too. I thought they'd be eliminated by now in a mini-France self destruct mode.

The U.S.? Actually, for once there is a lot of direct pressure on this team. For one, the stated goal of the 2010 tournament -- from Landon Donovan on down -- was to get out of the group. That's right in front of them. No outside help needed.

Beyond that, the team might not care to think this way, but a lot of casual fans are going to be turned off if the team doesn't figure out a way to get out of a group, which everyone labeled the softest in the Cup last December during the draw. All the U.S. has to do is win one game or else many would-be fans will be again turned back to soccer skeptics. In a way they'd be right too, why fall for the media pumping something up every couple years when it always ends the same disappointing way.

The media knives, which (for some through gritted teeth) remained in the sheaths, will be out in full force. The "Fire Bradley" brigade will be re-supplied by a new ammo drop. It won't be pretty.

What it all boils down to is with the eyes of the nation, perhaps for the first time since July 4, 1994, watching can the U.S. come through with a win?

That, friends, may sound easy ... but it won't exactly be child's play, like a game of Connect Four either.


* Assuming the U.S. does manage to get a way through to the Round of 16, it might be futile trying to project who you'd want the U.S. to play. My ranks (for preference) would be 1) Australia 2) Serbia 3) Germany 4) Ghana.

Logically, Germany should be first, but the U.S. under Bradley seems to play better against a traditional world power or "name" team. Ghana scares me for its overall speed, which could expose the U.S. defense, the 2006 group game notwitstanding.

Germany have more talent and skill than Ghana, but that tends to bring out the best in the U.S., where they could once again rely on the underdog card. In an even match with Ghana? Could be one of those ugly U.S. days we all know and hate. And that has nothing to do with the crunching would-be tackles from Kevin-Prince Boateng either.

* Amazing how Algeria went from awful, also-rans to a cocky team brimming with swagger after holding England#. A lot of the Algerians seem to have the same glint in their eyes as Clint Dempsey.

# If you want to split hairs, the entire American ethos was born from defeating the redcoats back in the 1770s. Guess beating the English allows you to puff out your chest a bit, doesn't it?

My biggest fear toward Algeria is a set play delivery from Karim Ziani finding a big target like Madjid Bougherra coming forward. Still think this team is closer to the one that struggled pre-World Cup than the one that held England. Confidence is contagious, of course.

* The script is for the U.S. to roll up their sleeves, go it the old "rah-rah" effort and get the result. Algeria isn't going to roll over, since a win keeps them in contention for the Round of 16, too. This, unfortunately, won't be an ESPN made-for-tv production -- think "Dancing with the Soccer Stars" -- with a built-in happy ending. The U.S. will have to put in work.

* Maurice Edu definitely seems like a big force in the U.S. locker room, but can he be on the field, too? His best spot for the U.S. going forward is probably in the center of defense, but it's not like Rangers is just going to move a midfield fulcrum back to help out the U.S., now are they?

* You'd think Stuart Holden would be a player with a skill set that would be useful it what figures to be an open, technical game.

* If Michael Bradley has another big game, does a Premier League coach come calling to Gladbach with an offer it can't refuse? Arsene Wenger apparently is swooning over him. Perhaps Cesc insurance?

* Even, if the U.S. breaks through with an early goal, Bradley better keep them pushing forward. Does anyone feel confident with the U.S. protecting a one-goal lead for anything more than a couple minutes?

There can't be many more things in the sporting world that tests your nerves quite like trying to protect a lead in the final 10 minutes of a World Cup when the opponent has poured everything forward. Those situations do truly turn a game into a battle of wills.

If the U.S. finds themselves in this situation, American fans will finally join their worldwide soccer brethren in experiencing what Sir Alex Ferguson so colorfully calls, "Squeaky bum time."

* Speaking of the U.S. defense, does anyone feel confident with Oguchi Onyewu back there? Believe me, this isn't a personal attack or nitpicking.

Readers and I have been saying for years that Onyewu is great as a physical presence. As a pure soccer defender, he leaves some things to be desired, even before his knee injury. You know Algeria is going to probably go right at him this game with speed tests. For Bradley it would be a huge gamble sitting him down and I tend to doubt he would.

One thing to consider is that Onyewu was pretty poor that half-season at Newcastle United and began slowly last summer at AC Milan. For all his work at Standard Liege, did anyone ever see him play for an extended amount of time? The Jupiler Pro League in Belgium is only rated No. 14 in Europe and does feature a vuvuzela playing beer can as its logo. (No lie.)

* Bottom line, whoever plays in the U.S. cannot give Ziani or any of the other Algeria threats all day on the ball in those 10 yards of space in front of the penalty area.

* Maybe I was a little harsh on Altidore in my harried Friday post-Slovenia write-up. I definitely overlooked the goal vs. Spain, but still, it's time for Jozy to stop his mini-flopping game and use his raw ability and score another important U.S. goal. Is that too much to ask from a 20-year-old? He is, after all, getting "Mission Impossible" tips from Zinedine Zidane on the top of a skyscraper, or at least that's what Adidas has led me to believe.

* If somehow Landon Donovan can carry his form from the final 45 minutes against Slovenia into Wednesday, oh man. All will be forgiven by even, I'm guessing, the most ardent "Landycakes" folks.

Easy scenario builder:

Thanks to reader "Barstool69" via his friend Tyler in Nashville, here's a handy chart to consult with all the Group C scenarios.

Lineup guess:

My preferred XI

4-3-2-1 or 4-5-1

GK -- Howard

DEF -- Cherundolo -- DeMerit -- Bocanegra -- Spector

DEF MID -- Beasley -- Bradley -- Edu

ATT MID -- Dempsey -- Donovan

FOR -- Altidore

Explanation -- Maybe The Elder will one day realize running a straight 4-4-2 against a team is a recipe for disaster. This type of lineup worked well neutralizing England. As you've read, I'm down on Onyewu, so moving Bocanegra inside covers for him and makes sure he's not exposed by Algeria's quick wing players. Spector? We roll the dice and hope he's got a nice cross or two in his boots.

Algeria is going to do its work from the outside-in, meaning it might even be worth dusting off DaMarcus Beasley to track and harass either Belhadj or Ziani. Beasley can still be an effective defensive runner to lock up on those the Desert Foxes key men. Unorthodox, I know.

This leaves a possibly lethal triangle of attackers with the "D-A-D" line working to keep the Algerians pinned deep, with support from Bradley the Younger running forward, perhaps creating some 3-on-2, 4-on-3 chances. Beasley and Edu stay back and help the defense.

Guess a lot of this comes down to what Bradley thinks Algeria will do. Algeria's 5-2-2-1/5-4-1 formation gave the Foxes plenty of possession and frustrated England. Needing a win, though, they might need to mix it up. Don't forget, Algeria hasn't scored yet. This might allow the U.S. to finally find some lanes on the counter attack.

The Elder's XI

GK -- Howard

DEF -- Cherundolo -- DeMerit -- Onyewu -- Bocanegra

MID -- Dempsey -- Bradley -- Clark -- Donovan

FOR -- Altidore -- Buddle

Explanation: The Elder sticks with "his guys" at least from the start. My biggest hope is that Bradley isn't locked into 4-4-2, or at least the two holding midfielders. What gives me hope is that Bradley has had a tinge of unpredictability this World Cup, so maybe he does something a little different. We'll see. Basically, break down the England/Algeria tape and do the complete opposite.

Perhaps a 4-4-1-1 with Holden out wide and Dempsey in the hole behind Altidore happens.

Don't care if I'm right or wrong here, so long as the U.S. finds a way to score one more goal than Algeria with whatever XI lines up at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

Around the Cup:

* Since we're getting Mexico vs. Argentina in the Round of 16 yet again, is there any way to convince Javier Aguirre to manage the match in a sports coat and jeans, Ricardo Lavolpe style?

* Through three games, no problem for Maradona. Look at the Argies opponents, though. Perhaps he was onto something by leaving Javier Zanetti home. It worked for Spain leaving Raul home at Euro 2008. Quasi-Ewing Theory in play?

* More on Brazil later in the week, but Dunga is silently creating a really dirty set up, sneaking Dani Alves into the midfield late in matches. You watch.

* It's a lot of fun to have a laugh at France. The fault falls on the shoulders of the France Federation for keeping Domenech in charge. Head case coach + head case players + prostitution scandal = meltdown.

This was one World Cup disaster we all saw coming.

* I tweeted this, but if Nic Anelka can show up and look happy in arguably the world's worst commercial (for Pringles), why did he sulk through the World Cup? Better question, why would Pringles even want Le Sulk associated with their product?

* Is it wrong for me to hope that David Villa's missed penalty ensures Spain plays Brazil in the Round of 16?

* How about the contrast in teams here from Africa. Nigeria shot itself in the foot in all three group games and goes home. Meanwhile South Africa goes down valiantly, only missing out on the Round of 16 on goal difference. A French scalp is a decent consolation prize.

* We've already got Argentina/Mexico locked in. How about these potential Round of 16 beauties: England/Germany ... US/Germany ... Brazil/Spain .. Netherlands/Italy ... Chile/Portugal. ... How lucky would Portugal end up if they got Chile instead of Spain. Chile aren't slouches, but still.

Final thought:

After 90 minutes in Pretoria one thing is going to matter, the scoreboard reading USA 1, Algeria 0 ... USA 2, Algeria 1 ... USA 3, Algeria 2 ... etc.

You get the point.

To quote a line from "Breaking Bad" ... no more half measures.

U.S. 2, Algeria 0

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6 Responses to “There for the taking”

  1. # Anonymous acecowboy

    Cue up the Jake Taylor speech.

    "There's only one thing left to do..."  

  2. # Blogger Cardillo
  3. # Blogger macarthur31

    Any given Wednesday?

    Great write up, as usual, Mike. I like running a 4-5-1 against the Desert Foxes. We looked spry in that second half, and I think it's because Maurice was kicking ass in the midfield, and Jozy was doing his best Brian Ching impersonation.

    I also like J-Spec making an appearance. I hate to say it, but I feel better about DeMerit/Boca up the middle.

    I know Paco disappointed us last game, but I still think he's our best ball control midfielder out there. That's gotta count for something against a team like Algeria who won't necessarily out-tough us.

    On the other hand, we should have aerial superiority, no?  

  4. # Anonymous drewdat

    You mentioned it, but I think it's worth highlighting Algeria's situation coming into the match. ESPN naturally will spend a lot of time talking about the US's advancement scenarios, but Algeria also has definite needs from the match that will change their playing style.

    Algeria needs to win either way (advance with England loss or tie if they win). If England wins, then Algeria has to pull ahead of Slovenia on goal differential.

    I'm pretty sure a 2 goal win for Algeria lets them control their own destiny, so the ultimate goal for Algeria at the outset has to be to get the goals. Obviously that plan can change (especially if Slovenia goes up on England), but I'd expect Algeria to come out attacking.

    Maybe they can sit back and try to get a quick counter in the first 10 or 15 minutes, but their goalscoring record doesn't give them much more time than that. Shouldn't be a Algeria-England repeat either way.  

  5. # Blogger frkh2o

    OMG, is that Jonathan Bornstein's music? *shiver*  

  6. # Anonymous porttt

    yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!! USA USA USA USA!!!!!!!!!!!!!1!!!  

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