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Friday, June 25, 2010
Updated: June 26, 11:11 AM ET
U.S. stands a chance of moving on

By Chris Jones
Special to

JOHANNESBURG -- There has been a subtle shift in South Africa these past 24 hours, a feeling that American soccer fans -- and the U.S. team itself -- have been making a kind of slow mental turn.

They're nearly finished with their basking. Now, they're spending less time with their happy memories, reflecting on what's happened, and more time in their dreams, seeing what's to come. They're replacing replays with their imaginations.

The lag has been understandable. In those 12 seconds between Tim Howard's throw and Landon Donovan's finish, in those 12 seconds when the U.S. team managed to go from elimination to winning its group, a massive psychological shift occurred. That goal against Algeria changed everything. The Americans went from disappointments to heroes; Bob Bradley went from being the wrong man for the job to a strategic genius; Donovan himself saw stories about his missed potential erased and hastily rewritten, turned into stories that instead celebrated his gifts, his stone-cold ability to finish when his team, his country, needed him most.

It was as though too much happened in too short a time, and it took everybody an extra day to digest.

But today, it's not about Algeria anymore. It's about Ghana.

And then, amazingly, it's already become about whatever might come next.

Strangeness has happened here. Because of a single goal, the Americans have become a team suddenly worth projecting. Their journey to the knockout stage has been so unpredictable, so melodramatic, that they've been freed from the usual restraints of low expectations. This team has been through everything already, and so, seemingly overnight, it has become capable of anything.

Even players on other teams are openly wondering what the Americans might be able to achieve in South Africa. Spain's Cesc Fabregas said recently, "The USA never gives up. That's why I believe they can go much further because they fight to the end and work so hard. So, I can see them reaching the semifinals, and then who knows what happens?"

Wait. The semifinals?

The Americans needed England's Robert Green to flub a Clint Dempsey shot for them to earn a 1-1 tie in their opening match. Then the U.S. spotted the Slovenians -- the smallest country in the World Cup, with a population equivalent to Houston's -- a 2-0 lead before storming back for a 2-2 tie (and what should have been a 3-2 win, were the go-ahead goal not inexplicably disallowed by referee Koman Coulibaly). And then they failed to finish against Algeria -- Jozy Altidore and Dempsey missing open nets -- before Donovan finally bailed them out at the last possible moment.

"It's such a fine line," Howard said. So fine, in fact, that it's now been all but erased. Putting that goal against Algeria in our collective memory bank so that we might look ahead is one thing. Forgetting 80 years of soccer history is another.

The U.S. has enjoyed a lead here for exactly two minutes in its three group stage games combined, the fewest of any team ever to advance.

They've never gone past the quarterfinals at a modern-day World Cup.

They haven't even won consecutive games at a World Cup since 1930.

And yet: the semifinals?

There are two reasons for the over-dreaming. The first is simple math -- the first is that time-honored American tradition of bracketology. By winning their group, the Americans have found themselves on the "easy" side of the draw. England, finishing second, meets Germany. The U.S. is happier facing Ghana.

The Ghanaians knocked out the U.S. in the previous World Cup, winning their group stage match 2-1. But they haven't looked nearly as good in South Africa. They've scored twice, both times on penalty kicks. Their best player, Michael Essien, is out with a knee injury. Their keeper, Richard Kingson, has looked jittery. They're beatable.

And if the Americans do come out on top, they'll then face the winner of the game between Uruguay and South Korea -- likely Uruguay -- at Soccer City in Johannesburg. The Uruguayans have looked very good, but their biggest win came against lightly regarded South Africa, and they managed a scoreless draw against hopeless France. They also aren't named Brazil, or Argentina, or Germany, or Spain.

Those monsters don't come into play for the U.S. until the semifinals -- the semifinals? -- when, only then, Brazil or the Netherlands will belatedly loom.

But more important, what's truly caught the soccer world's attention here, is how the Americans have played: not necessarily the results of their play, but the character of it. Their mistakes have been large, but they've recovered from them. When they might have given up -- down against England, down against Slovenia, all but down and out against Algeria -- they persevered. While other teams have suffered personality rifts or even outright mutiny, there hasn't been a whisper of discontent out of the U.S. camp. They've become the embodiment of optimism here, of the power of hope and belief.

That's why people are talking. That's why people are dreaming.

The semifinals?

Why stop there?

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.