June 17 2002. Mexico 0 – US 2. That is the last time the US won a game in the World Cup. It is time to do it again.
Since that day eight years ago, the US has had a courageous defeat (Germany in 2002), several heroic fight backs (Italy in 2006 and England and Slovenia in 2010) and a couple of pathetic collapses (Czech Republic and Ghana in 2006). It is time to put a W up on the scoreboard.
For the US to advance into the knockout round next week, they need to beat Algeria. There may be some mathematical models which allow the US to draw and still go through, but that is immaterial. If you cannot win a game in group play, and you cannot beat a middling team like Algeria when it really counts, you do not deserve to see the next round. The US has to prove that it is ready to do that.
What is the first step? It is time for the US to score the first goal and take a lead. The US team has not actually taken a lead in a World Cup game since that battle with Mexico in Korea. In the following six World Cups games in which the US has played, the other guys have scored first in all six. The US has found itself in a hole and has had to stretch and push to climb out. Sometimes that pushing has given the other team more chances to score (Czech Republic 2006). Sometimes that pushing has been heroic (Slovenia 2010). In either case, it is a bad position to be in if you value victories as opposed to heroism.
This pattern is nothing new for the US. Counting World Cup Qualifications games, you have to go all the way back to September 9, 2009 and the US’s 1-0 defeat over Trinidad & Tobago to find the last time the US scored first in a competitive match. Since then, in draws to Costa Rica, England and Slovenia and a victory over Honduras, the US has always given up the first goal, often early in the first half.
The US is well positioned to reverse this trend on Wednesday. For Algeria have any hope of going through, they have to beat the US, and to beat them, Algeria will need to do something they have failed to do against Slovenia or England – score a goal. Truthfully, they have not really had a dangerous shot on target in this tournament.
Nevertheless, Algeria will have to press forward in search of that goal, and they should leave themselves vulnerable to a counter. Algeria have been well-organized this tournament, but they are not as quick or as athletic as the US team, and if they press they can be beaten.
Four years after the disappointment of Germany 2006 and eight years after the false dawn that may have been Japan/Korea 2002, this is the chance for the US to show the world that our brand of soccer has really arrived on the world stage. To go through the group play undefeated and head into the knock-out round on the back of an important victory would prove that last year’s Confederations Cup run was not a fluke. However, those theories need to be proved with a victory on Wednesday. Nothing less will do.