Allow me to start this week with a good old-fashioned rant.
I have seen the U.S. national team get screwed by inexplicably pathetic refereeing more times over the last decade than I could possibly count. As a result, I have almost completely lost the ability to summon any measurable level of outrage when a demonstrably incorrect call or non-call affects a game.
But there is one thing that really gets me steamed, and it should have the same effect on you. Time and again, I have seen the U.S. give up the first goal in games of consequence. As great as the comebacks against England and Slovenia were, they were only the latest examples of a really worrisome trend.
Since the beginning of 2009, the United States has played a total of 34 games. It has scored first in 15 of them. You might think that a 44 percent record might not seem terrible. But among the teams against which the U.S. has scored first are are Grenada, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago twice.
The numbers get even more start if you just look at the most recent months. Starting with the 2-1 loss at Mexico last summer, in which the United States did score the first goal, the U.S. has scored first in just five of its last 16 games.
It is certainly true that a number of the games in which the U.S. has conceded the first goal have turned out reasonably well. There was a 2-2 draw at El Salvador and a 3-2 win at Honduras in World Cup qualifying last year, and of course the two big draws in the World Cup this month.
It is also true that the U.S. hasn't always won games in which it's scored first, including against Italy in the Confederations Cup and the aforementioned game at Mexico.
You can make a case that England and Slovenia are better than the United States, but I and many other people came into this World Cup thinking otherwise.
The problem is not limited to games against European teams, though. This American squad should not have to come from behind twice in five months in home games against El Salvador. Nor should it give up the first goal to Panama in Philadelphia.
(In fact, coupled with the Turkey game, the U.S. has given up the first goal in every match it's played at Lincoln Financial Field.)
Yes, these games drew big groups of fans that rooted for the opposing team. So did the 2-2 draw with Costa Rica in Washington last October, in which the Ticos scored the first two goals.
But compare the United States' two games against Honduras last year. Both were in Chicago, and both crowds were bipartisan at best. In the Gold Cup semifinal, the lesser U.S. team scored first in a 2-0 win. In the World Cup Qualifier, the better U.S. team gave up the first goal and came from behind to win 2-1.
There's no reason why that should be the case. I've tried to figure out if there's some kind of pattern or common thread here, and I can't find anything. Can you?
So with that said, let's now turn to this coming Wednesday's do-or-die game against Algeria. It is nothing less than a legacy-defining moment for Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and many of the other stars on the U.S. team.
If the U.S. wants to really prove how far it has come as a soccer nation over the last 12 months, then it doesn't just need to beat Algeria. It needs to score first, and maybe second too.
You should want to see a strong performance from start to finish. Not just an energetic second half, but an energetic first half too. Algeria teased England all night on Friday, never scoring but playing just enough keep-away to frustrate Wayne Rooney and company time and again.
If Algeria scores first against the U.S., they could do the exact same thing all over again. But if the U.S. scores first, Algeria will have to chase the game. The Desert Foxes have good players, but no one I've seen who's capable of leading a comeback the way Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley did against Slovenia. And if the U.S. scores first, I can easily see Algeria crumbling.
So here's the question for us to discuss. Will this finally be the game where the United States delivers the kind of authoritative, dominating performance we've all been waiting for? Or will it be another frustrating day of falling behind and frantically racing against the clock?
If it's the former, the U.S. will advance to the second round, quite possibly as group winners. It will be a historic moment, and could set the table for a deep run in the knockout rounds if other groups shake out right.
If it's the latter, who knows what hazards will have to be overcome. The game could end in a draw, leaving the Americans' fate in the hands of Slovenia and England.
Or, even worse, a come-from-behind game could swing on another big refereeing decision. Surely no one wants to go through that again. And what's the best way to take matters away from the officials? To win the game decisively.
As in many other sports, the results of close soccer games are often affected by calls and no-calls at critical times. This particular moment feels to me more than a little like the first Saturday of the NCAA Tournament. I see the U.S. as being sort of like a top-30-or-so mid-major school that has won its first round game.
It's a worthy accomplishment in most circumstances, but this team is good enough that making the second round was at least predicted and likely expected by many.
Now the team faces a beatable opponent with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake. The closer the game is at the end, the more likely it is that a questionable block or charge call will determine the end result. But if the players make open shots and don't commit dumb fouls, they have the talent to win the game.
Yes, I've picked the above words carefully. They ring true for the U.S. soccer team right now as much as they did for Temple, Cornell and Butler this past March.
On Wednesday morning, we'll find out once and for all whether the United States can really put it together. The stakes are historically high, as is the potential reward.
Can the U.S. get the job done?
2009: 24 games. 13 wins, eight losses, three draws; 13 games scored first
January 24: United States 3, Sweden 2 (Carson, Calif.)
February 11: United States 2, Mexico 0 (Columbus, Ohio)
March 28: United States 2, El Salvador 2 (San Salvador)
April 1: United States, 3, Trinidad and Tobago 0 (Nashville)
June 3: Costa Rica 3, United States 1 (San Jose, Costa Rica)
June 6: United States 2, Honduras 1 (Chicago)
June 15: Italy 3, United States 1 (Confederations Cup at Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa)
June 18: Brazil 3, United States 0 (Confederations Cup at Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa)
June 21: United States 3, Egypt 0 (Confederations Cup at Rustenberg, South Africa)
June 24: United States 2, Spain 0 (Confederations Cup at Bloemfontein, South Africa)
June 28: Brazil 3, United States 0 (Confederations Cup at Johannesburg, South Africa)
July 4: United States 4, Grenada 0 (Gold Cup at Seattle)
July 8: United States 2, Honduras 0 (Gold Cup at Washington, D.C.)
July 11: United States 2, Haiti 2 (Gold Cup at Foxboro, Mass.)
July 18: United States 2, Panama 1 a.e.t. (Gold Cup at Philadelphia)
July 23: United States 2, Honduras 0 (Gold Cup at Chicago)
July 26: Mexico 5, United States 0 (Gold Cup at East Rutherford, N.J.)
August 12: Mexico 2, United States 1 (Mexico City)
September 5: United States 2, El Salvador 1 (Sandy, Utah)
September 9: United States 1, Trinidad and Tobago 0 (Port of Spain, Trinidad)
October 10: United States 3, Honduras 2 (San Pedro Sula, Honduras)
October 14: United States 2, Costa Rica 2 (Washington, D.C.)
November 14: Slovakia 1, United States 0 (Bratislava, Slovakia)
November 18: Denmark 3, United States 1 (Aarhus, Denmark)
2010: Eight games. Three wins, three losses and two draws; two games scored first
January 23: Honduras 3, United States 1 (Carson, Calif.)
February 24: United States 2, El Salvador 1 (Tampa)
March 3: Netherlands 2, United States 1 (Amsterdam)
May 25: Czech Republic 4, United States 2 (East Hartford, Conn.)
May 29: United States 2, Turkey 1 (Philadelphia)
June 5: United States 3, Australia 1 (Roodeport, South Africa)
June 12: United States 1, England 1 (World Cup at Rustenburg, South Africa)
June 18: United States 2, Slovenia 2 (World Cup at Johannesburg, South Africa)