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One final hurdle for U.S. men's soccer

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

PRETORIA, South Africa -- One more game, one last chance to make their reputation.

When the Americans play Algeria at the World Cup today they'll either live up to all the hype and earn a spot among the final 16 teams -- or fall painfully short of their long-stated goal and lose a watershed opportunity.

"We have a great chance tomorrow night to get a win and advance on to the second round," captain Carlos Bocanegra said Tuesday. "It's important for us because we had that disappointment in '06. It's not really extra motivation, but it's just 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."

A victory or possibly a tie would move the United States into the knockout rounds on a high that will set off midday celebrations back home. Replicate the loss to Ghana that knocked the U.S. out in 2006, and it will start a new round of soul-searching for that could cost coach Bob Bradley his job -- not to mention dampening the burgeoning enthusiasm for soccer in America.

Since returning to the World Cup in 1990 following a 40-year absence, the U.S. has alternated first-round elimination ('90, '98 and '06) with a second-round appearance at home in 1994 and a trip to the quarterfinals in South Korea in 2002.

This World Cup started with a come-from-behind 1-1 tie against glamorous England. Then the Americans trailed Slovenia by two goals at halftime only to fight back as Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley scored for a 2-2 draw. They appeared to go ahead, but Maurice Edu's 85th-minute goal was disallowed for reasons referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali didn't explain.

"We're not going to worry about any calls or anything like that getting us down," Bocanegra said. "We had a good second half and hopefully we can continue with that momentum and put that into the Algeria game."

The U.S. has never before faced the Desert Foxes, who have yet to score in this tournament following a 1-0 loss to Slovenia and a 0-0 draw against England. Algeria can advance only with a win.

And Les Fennecs coach Rabah Saadane repeatedly used the phrase "God willing" in reference to a victory.

"We are in a good mood to make our people back home very happy," Algeria captain Antar Yahia said.

A win would send the U.S. to a second-round matchup this weekend with Germany, Ghana, Serbia or Australia, and another big television audience for American soccer. With France knocked out, and England, Germany, defending champion Italy and Spain all uncertain of reaching the knockout stage, the U.S. could find itself in a fairly wide-open tournament if it advances.

Coaches will be paying attention to the England-Slovenia game, which will be played simultaneously in Port Elizabeth. If the English lose, the U.S. would advance with a tie. If both the U.S. and England draw, the

Americans reach the second round if they maintain their goal advantage over the English, currently 3-1.

It could get thorny if the U.S. and the English tie, and England scores two goals more than the Americans. Then Slovenia would win the group and a televised drawing of a ball from a bowl would be held in Johannesburg at 1 p.m. EDT to determine whether the U.S. or England finishes second.

"I think for us the concentration is just on getting ready for the match," Bob Bradley said. "So many things can happen along the way, so we've not put much thought into the final way of determining things."

Michael Kammarman, the U.S. team's press officer, will be responsible for keeping staff aware of the score in the England-Slovenia game. What happens in the other match could determine how much the U.S. pushes for a late goal against the Algerians.

"You have to be a little careful because you want to just play and you don't want to, at the end of the game, think that if we hold onto this result that we're going to get through and then you get a goal scored on you and you're out of it," Donovan said. "So you have to play, but you have to also be aware of what the other result is."

Going into their first-round finale in 2002, the U.S. flopped to a 3-0 defeat against Poland but wound up advancing with a second-place group finish when Park Ji-sung's 70th-minute goal gave South Korea a 1-0 victory over Portugal.

At last year's Confederations Cup, the U.S. needed a three-goal win over Egypt to advance and for Italy to lose to Brazil by three goals. Brazil scored three times in the first half against the Azzurri, and Clint Dempsey's 71st-minute goal gave the U.S. a 3-0 win over the Egyptians.

g NOTES: Forward Jozy Altidore missed the first part of training Tuesday because of an upset stomach. "Jozy just wasn't feeling well, but he'll be fine for tomorrow," Bob Bradley said. With Robbie Findley suspended after getting yellow cards against England and Slovenia, Edson Buddle could be paired with Altidore at forward.

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WORLD CUP NOTEBOOK

FRENCH FANS BOO OWN TEAM: French fans in Paris groaned and booed their own team Tuesday -- and even cheered for South Africa -- as they watched France's last World Cup loss, a final humiliation after the squad's public infighting left the nation aghast.

Thousands of people, some wearing or waving French flags, showed up to watch the match broadcast on a screen across from the Eiffel Tower. But hopes lost ground as South Africa began scoring, and the bitterness was palpable by the game's end.

France lost 2-1 and left the tournament, while Uruguay and Mexico advanced from Group A.

"I'm sickened, disgusted," said Alain Le Prince, dressed in a team jersey, his cheeks painted with the colors of the French flag -- and among those who said he cheered for South Africa. "Everyone is laughing at us."

The crowd cheered loudly when France's Florent Malouda scored the team's only goal of the tournament. But people had also cheered when France's Yoann Gourcuff was shown a red card and expelled, and there was loud applause mixed with gasps each time South Africa scored.

"Lots of people are for South Africa now," said Angelique Jurquit, 23, a radio journalist. "The French are disgusted with the results of their team, so this is a bit to make fun of France now."

"It's funny. France is worthless," said Victor Malamoud, a 17-year-old Parisian, explaining his cheers for South Africa. Like others, he said he had come to "see the match, watch Les Bleus and hope."

Trouble started for Les Bleus (the Blues) when Nicolas Anelka crudely insulted coach Raymond Domenech and was expelled from the French squad Saturday. The players protested his expulsion by refusing to train Sunday.

Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot, in South Africa until the end of the match on orders from President Nicolas Sarkozy, said Monday night that she spoke with the team and told them they had "tarnished France." She also said they cried.