What: US vs. Algeria, Group C, Matchday 3
When: Wednesday, 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT
Where: Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
TV: ESPN, Univisión
Four years ago, the US knew they had a chance to book a spot in the knockout rounds of the 2006 World Cup with a win in their final group-stage game against Ghana. They failed miserably, losing 2-1 to the upstart Black Stars.
On Wednesday, the challenge is eerily similar. All the US need to do to reach the Round of 16 this time around is beat another upstart African team: Algeria. Clearly it’s not that simple. The Algerians are here for a reason. But the US aren’t the same team that wilted in Germany, says Landon Donovan.
“In the two World Cups I’ve been a part of, we hadn’t strung together three consecutive good results and good performances, and I think this team has the experience and the ability to do that,” the American star said on Monday. “We’ll find out on Wednesday night.”
Indeed we will. Every game for the US in South Africa has been billed as crucial, but this particular tilt will say a lot about whether the Americans are ready to truly step up when it counts. Will they be the same team that has surrendered the lead early in consecutive games? Or the second-half team that refuses to lose?
This is their chance. If they blow it against Algeria, they’re out at the group stage for a second consecutive World Cup. Win, and they move on. Draw again, and they can still advance, but they’ll need to rely on Wednesday’s result between England and Slovenia, played simultaneously. And not being in control of their fate is not a position Donovan & Co. want to be in.
For the US, the goal here is easy: Don’t concede first. It’s been a habit that has plagued the team for more than a year, and it cannot continue. Even though the Americans certainly play better when they’re chasing, they can’t do it again in a must-win game.
There isn’t a ton of lineup juggling Bob Bradley will need to do against Algeria, since his first unit is more or less set. Robbie Findley is out due to yellow-card accumulation, which means Jozy Altidore will get a new partner up top. That could be Edson Buddle, who saw minutes off the bench against England, or it could be Clint Dempsey, who has experience in being pushed up from the midfield.
What’s clear is that the José Francisco Torres experiment in central midfield is probably over for the short-term. Maurice Edu played well next to Michael Bradley against Slovenia, but the Michael Bradley-Ricardo Clark tandem has more chemistry together. How this game develops may dictate whom Bob Bradley uses.
Never mind their billing as the weakest team in Group C. Algeria made this World Cup on grit, and they deserve to be here. On their day, they can hang with the very best and are experts at getting under an opponent’s skin—witness their 0-0 draw with England last week.
On their worst day, however, Les Fennecs are capable of total meltdowns, too—against Egypt in the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations this past January, Algeria saw three players sent off, one of whom head-butted the referee.
Personnel-wise, they have players all over Germany, England and France who are comfortable at this level of play. But most importantly, none of them are intimidated in the least. For them, this is also a must-win game, and arguably the most important match in Algerian history.
“The Algeria team also knows the USA team extremely well,” coach Rabah Saadane said at Tuesday’s pregame press conference. “I think we have the means to write Algerian football history [on Wednesday].”
United States: Michael Bradley. With apologies to Donovan—who’s arguably more dialed-in than at any point in his career—Bradley the Younger has perhaps been the Americans’ player of the tournament. He has shown again and again that he is a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball, and his fiery competitiveness has been key to two US rallies.
Slovenia: Nadir Belhadj. The Portsmouth left back is about as dangerous an offensive weapon as Algeria have, especially if he moves up to midfield in a 3-5-2. He’s quick, shifty and fearless, and he’ll have no problem running right at whomever is in his way. If he’s not shooting himself, he’s the perfect link to underrated striker Karim Matmour, Bradley’s teammate at Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Here’s a scary statistic: The US have never won their third group-stage game in any World Cup. Ever. For them to advance, they have to stop that streak immediately. Algeria have yet to score a goal at this tournament, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get behind the US defense for a first. The key here is that the Americans must start strong, dictate the tempo and finish strong. Their survival depends on it.
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