JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Heading to the World Cup, the consensus was that if the United States could tie or beat England, it would be in great shape to advance to the second round.
After all, the next two opponents were supposed weaklings Slovenia and Algeria.
Buoyed by a draw with the English, the Americans face Slovenia on Friday (10 a.m. at Johannesburg). Yet the scenario is not so bright for the United States.
Simply put, anything short of a victory would damage U.S. hopes of moving ahead after Slovenia beat Algeria 1-0. If the Slovenes pull the upset — they are ranked 25th compared to the U.S. ranking of 14 — they will guarantee a place in the next round. Even a draw would mean the Americans must beat Algeria or else they could need help to stay alive.
"The game against Slovenia is going to determine if we get out of the group or not," U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu said.
One Slovenes are confident enough that one player, Andrej Komac, even predicted victory.
"I think talk is cheap," said American goalkeeper Tim Howard, who is expected to start after recovering from a rib injury sustained in the 1-1 draw with England. "He's got to stand toe to toe. And they've got to stand toe to toe with us for 90 minutes. And if he's still standing, then I'll take my hat off to him. But a lot of boxers talk, too, and they're looking up at the lights. And the next thing they know, they're trying to figure out how they got there."
Slovenia, the smallest nation in the tournament, got here by upsetting Russia in a two-game playoff. That alone makes it a dangerous opponent.
"We have the opportunity to make our dreams come true already after the second game," coach Matjaz Kek said. "That would be a sensation, but I'm sure we are capable of it."
The fortunes of both the Slovenes and the Americans could turn on what England is capable of against Algeria (2:30 p.m. at Cape Town). A pretournament favorite, the English looked nervous when playing the U.S., and star striker Wayne Rooney never really got going. Anything less than a win against Algeria could seriously dent England's chances of advancing, especially if the United States beats Slovenia.
Already, the players — particularly goalkeeper Robert Green, whose miscue gave Clint Dempsey the only U.S. goal — and coach Fabio Capello are under fire back home. Capello is contemplating several lineup changes, including replacing Green.
"Against Algeria, we can't not be at our best and win the game," Rooney said. "The further it goes, when you are playing against better teams, then you need to be at your best to win. Friday, we just have to win."
Algeria also has keeper issues: Fawzi Chaouchi misjudged Robert Koren's shot and it beat him for the only goal against Slovenia. He hurt his knee in training on Tuesday.
The Desert Foxes have proven their strength by rising from No. 103 in the world to No. 30 over the last two years.
Germany always seems to prove itself, and it was the best performer in the first set of games with a 4-0 rout of Australia. A win over Serbia (7:30 a.m. at Port Elizabeth) would put the three-time champions close to advancing from Group D.
"It's (Serbia's) last chance to stay in the tournament and we'll have to be very careful and concentrated," Germany assistant coach Hansi Flick said, noting that Serbia lost 1-0 to Ghana in its opener. "Australia was no measuring stick and Serbia is a very good team, with players in top clubs in Europe. We'll have to improve what we did well against Australia."
That is a scary prospect considering how good the Germans were against the Socceroos.
Serbia is desperate.
"This upcoming match is really a historic match for us," coach Radomir Antic said. "But Germany should also inspire us to regain the passion and joy in our game. We were too tight against Ghana, we failed mentally. All our players have to raise their level."