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Aug 22, 2007

U.S. finds itself in must-win scenario

After just one game at the U-17 World Cup, John Hackworth's U.S. squad finds itself in the unenviable position of needing a result against a very tough Tunisian team on Thursday (3:45 a.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPNU). Fail, and they can kiss their championship dreams goodbye. In the unforgiving world of tournament play, an opening loss will do that to you.

The question is, will the highly-touted Americans, one of the competition's favorites before suffering an embarrassing 4-3 loss to minnows Tajikistan in their first Group E tilt, live up to their reputation and rebound? There is no doubt they possess the talent to beat the North Africans. And, with two first-round matches left, there is plenty of time for the U.S. to get its act together and advance to the knockout phase, which was Hackworth's stated goal before the group jetted off to Korea.

Two things the U.S. has to display Thursday are a greater commitment and a ruthless killer instinct. In a game where they were the heavy favorites, the Yanks were closely matched by Tajikistan for long stretches. Sure, the Central Asians caught some breaks, like a fortunate first goal that came against the run of play and that was helped in by a fortuitous deflection. And Fatkhullo Fatkhuloev's winner was a virtuoso strike, a pinpoint rocket of a shot that would have been a goal in any league, at any level, anywhere on the planet. But the U.S. had its chances to put the game away in the first half and its failure to take them proved costly in the end.

Captain Mykell Bates, who opened the Yanks' World Cup account Monday, admitted his team didn't display enough heart. "Tajikistan seemed to have more passion than we had," he said. "We will be looking for another chance against Tunisia."

U.S. U-17 schedule
U.S. vs. Tunisia,
Aug. 23
Changwon Main Stadium, Korea
4 a.m. ET, ESPN2

U.S. vs. Belgium,
Aug. 26
Cheonan Sports Complex, Korea
3 a.m. ET, ESPNU

The Stars and Stripes will be facing perhaps the toughest of their three first-round foes in Tunisia. The county has a proud recent footballing tradition; the senior team has qualified for the past three World Cups. However, at the U-17 level, they have not been quite as successful. 2007 marks just the second time the Eaglets have reached the finals, and the first time since 1993.

With success expected back home, coach Maher Kanzari put his players though an intense two-plus month preparation in advance of the tourney. The work paid off with a fantastic 4-2 victory against Belgium to kick off their stay in the Far East. Other than a nine-minute first-half lull during which the Belgians struck for both their goals, Tunisia dominated the encounter -- even after a red card reduced them to ten men. Early in the second half, with the score 3-2 in favor of Tunisia, Oussama Boughanmi was sent off for a second bookable offense.

Still, the Europeans couldn't capitalize with the man advantage and the Africans won going away, with Msakni netting his second of the game 11 minutes before the final whistle.

Despite its obvious quality, it is entirely possible that Tunisia will suffer a letdown after beginning the tourney on such a high note. At this level, it's easy to look like world-beaters one day and merely average the next. Plus, starting midfielders Msakni, Sadok Arbi and Madji Makhzoumi could have heavy legs after carrying the defensive load for the final 38 minutes without Boughanmi. And of course, Boughanmi, who scored the first goal for his team in the curtain raiser, will miss the contest through suspension.

To beat Tunisia, the U.S. absolutely must get better performances in the middle of the park. Although they enjoyed a considerable edge in possession versus Tajikistan (57 percent to 43 percent, with an 8-1 edge in corner kicks), central players Jared Jeffrey and Dan Wenzel were far from their best. For their team to win, they'll have to assert themselves -- especially Wenzel -- who some considered the squad's top player entering the event.

The Yanks also have to be much sharper up front. First-choice striker Ellis McLoughlin sat out all but the final few minutes against the Tajiks with a throat problem. He should replace young Abdusalam Ibrahim up top, with the impressive Billy Schuler (one goal, one assist in the opener) alongside. Quick, powerful Alex Nimo is fantastic running at defenders and made several seeing-eye passes that amounted to nothing Monday. But he proved during CONCACAF qualifying that he can score in important games. That bodes well for the Americans, because Thursday's match will be the biggest of his fledgling career.

Finally, the U.S. needs to shore up the defense. In a three-man back line, left back Kofi Sarkodie had trouble covering the wide swath of real estate on Changwon Main Stadium pitch. As such, Hackworth might consider deploying four defenders against the dangerous Tunisians. If he does, look for Tommy Meyer to slide into a central spot alongside Bates.

Whatever the formation, it's clear the Americans will have to be vastly improved from here on out to revive its lofty pre-Cup hopes. Hackworth, for one, still likes his team's chances to progress to the second phase.

"It's not over," he said after the initial setback. "There are six points out there and two more games. We have to regroup."

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.