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Americans’ goal: Just win

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McClatchy Tribune
June 23, 2010
— The situation is really quite simple for the U.S. World Cup team as it heads into today’s winner-take-all match: Beat Algeria, advance to the second round, keep the star-spangled party going. Lose to Algeria, go home and squander an opportunity to cultivate the sport on American soil. Tie, cross fingers and root for Slovenia to beat England.

No use what-iffing about the controversial disallowed goal against Slovenia. That’s ancient history. All that matters is what happens at 4 p.m. (9 a.m. CDT) at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, a historic rugby venue in the nation’s capital city.


“Clearly, if we lose, we’re done and if we win, we’re through,” said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan. “There are scenarios where if we tie we could still advance, but at this point our objective is very clear. It’s to win the game and take all the other stuff out of the question.”


If the U.S. and England both tie, the U.S. could still advance if it maintains its two-goals-scored advantage. Through two matches, the Americans have scored three goals, and the English have scored one. If the U.S. and England were to finish deadlocked, FIFA would draw lots to decide which team advances.


The Americans faced a similar situation at the 2006 World Cup, and they lost the final group game to Ghana. They were criticized for regressing after reaching the quarterfinals in 2002, and are eager to restore their reputation and prove they can, indeed, play this sport with The Big Boys.


“It’s important for us because we had that disappointment in ‘06,” said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. “It’s in the back of our minds. You work so hard and you train for so long for the World Cup, and it can be over so quickly if you don’t advance.”


The U.S. players have been sequestered at a remote farm near Pretoria, but thanks to Twitter, Facebook and e-mail, they are well aware of the furor back home over Maurice Edu’s nullified goal, and they are genuinely touched.


There was a time, not so long ago, when the U.S. team played its World Cup matches in a near-vacuum, with only diehard fans keeping tabs. But now, every game is televised live, fans are playing hooky to watch, and they are becoming passionate. Nothing brings Americans together like feeling they were ripped off by a referee.


“It’s really heartening to see how much people care,” Donovan said. “The one thing we do know is that Wednesday morning in the States is going to be a really big occasion, and we relish that because we don’t get it very often.


“We know people are talking about it and people care. We’ve had unbelievable support here. ... It’s not something I’ve experienced since I’ve been a part of this team, not to this level.”


Goalkeeper Tim Howard added: “Those type of things are starting to leak into our training camp: People are up in arms, and they can’t believe the call. That’s pretty cool.”


Many of those same fans are asking why the U.S. has a tendency to fall behind early, why they can’t start games the way they played the second half against Slovenia, with reckless abandon, numbers going forward, and a determination to score. In 2006, the U.S. fell behind in all three games, with goals scored in the first 22 minutes. This time, England’s Steve Gerrard scored in the fourth minute, and Slovenia’s Valter Birsa scored in the 13th.


“No one likes going behind in a game, but for whatever reason, we seem to be very, very resilient and we start to play more to our strengths when we get desperate,” Howard said.


Coach Bob Bradley said it is a misconception to think the team that scores first is playing better. He said every game has “a feeling out process” and it takes time for the game to get into a rhythm. Throwing caution to the wind early can backfire, he said.


The U.S. strike force will be without Robbie Findley, who received two yellow cards and must sit out. Jozy Altidore missed training Tuesday with an upset stomach, but is expected to start.


Although U.S. fans probably don’t know much about the Desert Foxes, the players do. Many of them play alongside Algerian players in Europe.


The Algerians have nothing to lose. This is their third World Cup, and they were eliminated in the first round in 1982 and 1986.


“We are representing Africa, representing the Arab world, and we have a chance to write Algerian football history,” said coach Rabah Saadane.


Not if the U.S. can help it.


“In the second half the other night, we simply refused to let our World Cup end,” Donovan said. “It was a collection of 11, 12, 13 guys who wanted to do something special. We haven’t strung together three consecutive good results. I think this team has the experience and the ability to do that. We’ll find out on Wednesday night.”



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