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Thursday, June 17, 2010
Future of American footy again at stake


U.S. fans
U.S. fans will be out in force as the team takes on Slovenia in a ... say it ... must-win game.

4:55 p.m., Au Bon Pain, E. 40th Street, New York

Day 7. In which we quite possibly bid adieu to the feckless French and most definitely to my beloved Super Eagles, who disintegrated against the previously impotent Greeks. Above all, we benefited from Diego Maradona's clarification of his sexual orientation. After hugging and kissing his players to celebrate their impressive 4-1 victory over South Korea, El Diego felt compelled to inform the world media: "I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is blonde and 31 years old." Classy.

We move quickly to Day 8 of this World Cup of Parity, aka Judgment Day: SoccerWhiffleBall Day of Reckoning, in which this entire nation of ours from sea to shining sea (barring Cleveland, the Bermuda Triangle of American sporting fandom, home to the largest Slovenian community outside of Slovenia) will bellow for our U.S. heroes as they fight the good fight -- to prove themselves psychologically capable of winning a clichéd must-win game they are expected to win.

TiVo simply will not cut it. Take a three-day weekend, live a little, and watch these beauties unfold live.

The first game, and probably the most exciting of the day ... in pure footballing terms.

Germany versus Serbia, 7:30 a.m. ET, Port Elizabeth

After the Germans lumped four goals past an abject Australia in their opening game, many fickle fans appeared ready to hand them the World Cup then and there, chuck the player of the tournament trophy to fresh-faced Mesut Ozil, and flip the coveted Golden Shoe to either one of their pillaging Poles, be it Miroslav Klose or Lukas Podolski -- who incidentally, still communicate on the field in Polish. (Germany: The face of a bold new Europe.)

Podolski is an enigma. Innocuously ineffective for his club team yet international tournaments trigger some kind of "Twilight"/full moon effect, transforming him into a world-class marksman. The Germans hope he can continue his ruthless form. They would dearly love their young squad to lock up Group D before grappling with Ghana in their final game -- the Bludgeoning Boateng Brother Bloodbath, a possible payback time for the injury Ghana's Kevin Prince-Boateng inflicted that knocked out Michael Ballack. Ironically, that freed up room for Ozil to twinkle in midfield. Coach Jogi Low will hope that the only bad decision he makes is in his choice of a personal dresser. The German team suit, set off by an electric blue T-shirt, resembles the outfit worn by the maitre d' at the hippest restaurant in Tirana, Albania.

For Serbia, this is a clichéd must-win game. Tipped by many to be a dark-horse outsider, the Serbs started flat in a loss to Ghana and will have to find a way to test Germany's suspect defense, something the inept Socceroos never came close to doing. Look for the White Eagles to exploit set pieces and corners, which were lucrative in qualifying. One can only hope their opposition research was more thorough than that of their national television network, which riled their opponents by claiming Robert Enke, formerly the German starting goalkeeper before tragically taking his own life in November, would not be featuring in South Africa because he was "injured."

The middle game, in which the future of American footy hangs in the balance, once more.

Slovenia versus USA, 10 a.m. ET, Johannesburg

On Tuesday, Slovenian midfielder Andrej Komac breathlessly informed reporters after practice that "we are going to win this match." Despite the best efforts of Slovenian soccer authorities to prove the western media's shoddy mastery of South Slavic caused a mistranslation (he apparently said "We will play to win" ) it was all too late. Komac's quote was all over the Internet, and has undoubtedly been chewing-gummed to the motivational pinboard in the U.S. locker room. It is on.

Neophyte American fans, no doubt still breathless from the thrill of Saturday's 1-1 win against England, are most probably asking themselves a very simple question: Who in the world are these Slovenians? Judging by their garb, they appear to be a team of nobodies from a tiny nation in which Peanuts is still very popular. That is half-true, and both good and bad news. The team is starless. West Bromwich Albion reject Robert Koren, the team's playmaker, is perhaps the best-known. But the Slovenians are also egoless. A tactically well-organized mirror image of the U.S. in formation and strategy, seeking to soak up the opponents and strike on the counter.

And so the United States finds itself in an unusual World Cup position as Friday dawns. They have to win to control their destiny. They expect to have far more control of the ball. The question is: Will they know what to do with it? Can they discover the precision in possession that they will need to pick their opponents apart? A bold lineup change -- the insertion of the raw but aggressive Jose Torres in midfield -- would be a good sign. As is Herculez Gomez's twitter feed @herculezg. The man is 8-1 (via Bodog.com) to score the first goal. Yet still appears supremely loose:

"I think vuvezelas sound nice; like having bees arguing with kazoos in my mind."

And the final game, in which England will test the nerves of a nation before scraping by.

England versus Algeria, 2:30 p.m. ET, Cape Town

A duel in which two of the most pilloried World Cup goalkeepers of all time fight for whatever scraps of dignity remain. Amazingly enough after their pee-wee caliber muck-ups, both Robert Green and Faouzi Chaouchi may start. Fabio Capello is rumored to fear trusting the English gloves to the inexperienced reflexes of alternate Young Joe Hart. Don Fabio will announce his decision two hours before the game -- just as he did ahead of the U.S. game -- believing this mental torture brings out the best in his players. If we saw the best of Robert Green on Saturday, one shudders to think what his worst must look like. We may well find out.

Algeria's Chaouchi has more than wounded pride. Although his coach gave him a full vote of confidence in the wake of his childish yet costly error, he proceeded to sprain his knee in training and will be a game-time decision.

Frosted of hair, Algeria will take to the field knowing that, for one game only, it is the most popular team in Scotland. Their skin-tight shirts, replete with nipple-enhancing technology, will be clinging to beer bellies from Glasgow to the Isle of Skye. As lovely a mental picture as this may be, it will take more to bring victory. Flaccid in front of goal, the team is prepared to unleash 20-year-old Sochaux attacking midfielder Ryad Boudebouz upon the English. Not much is known about this wonderboy. I hope Don Fabio's backroom team has scoured the Internet to gain these pearls of wisdom from Boudebouz's 13-year-old sister, Anissia, in her revealing tell-all blog:

What I Heart: My family, My friends, My street, my city, The FCSM team (Football Club Sochaux Montbeliard, my brother's team)

What I Hate: Jealous people, Liars.

Boudebouz's pace could antagonize the lumbering English back four but Algeria's best plan may be to keep the game tight for the first half-hour and then step out of the way as the crushing weight of history fells their opponents.

England should be bolstered by the return of midfield safety blanket Gareth Barry, and there are rumors -- just rumors, Michael Davies -- that Jermain Defoe may replace your beloved Emile Heskey up front (was he only selected for his tonsorial skills after all?). Eager to prove German legend Franz Beckenbauer wrong when he tarred their play as "kick and rush": the English would dearly love to score a load. Their nation would settle for a single unanswered goal.