The fairytale continues for the United States soccer team.

The boys have advanced to the second round of the World Cup for the first time since 1994, when they were hosts.

The action - not accomplished in spectacular manner, except perhaps for its goalkeeping - lays to rest the ignominy of poor results and poor performances in France in 1998.

This time around, after an astounding 3-2 win against group favorites Portugal, the Americans fought to a gritty 1-1 tie with co-hosts South Korea in a cauldron of screaming home fans which acted almost like a 12th, 13th and 14th player.

Then at 6:30 this morning Chinese referee Lu Jun blew his whistle to keep American dreams alive by advancing the team to the knockout second round.

The scoreline at the stadium at Daejeon read U.S. 1, Poland 3. But it didn't matter.

Unbeaten co-hosts from South Korea had assured the Americans' advance with a 1-0 win over Portugal in a game played simultaneously in a stadium three hours away.

The result meant that the Koreans won the group and the Americans placed second. The two teams packing their bags, Portugal and Poland, had been pre-tournament favorites to advance.

But such is soccer, and the unscripted drama of the World Cup

So the USA will play arch-rivals Mexico 11:30 p.m. Sunday (ESPN) in a match that promises considerable tension. Mexico has always been the toughest team in the region. But it has not been playing well in the past year.

It was not an easy advance for the Americans.

"It's good to get a piece of luck," a drained U.S. captain Claudio Reyna told an ESPN interviewer after the match.

That was an understatement.

Defensive lapses by the Americans' oldest player, Jeff Agoos, let Polish attackers in early and meant the U.S. was 2-0 down in five minutes. (Agoos, you may recall, was enjoying his first World Cup game last week when he scored a spectacular own goal to offer Portugal hope of tying.)

The U.S. match today had some more heartstopping moments to follow.

Coach Bruce Arena pulled off Agoos in the 36th minute, putting his hopes on midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who has had a promising season with the Chicago Fire. It proved a wise move.

In the second half, the Poles scored a third goal in the 65th minute after the U.S. players again failed to properly defend a free kick from the left and a Polish player headed past a static U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel.

The net minder redeemed himself in astonishing fashion minutes later by saving a penalty kick, his second in consecutive games, surely making himself the MVP of the first-round for the USA.

Meanwhile across the nation in Incheon, South Korea booted a goal in the 70th minutes to lead Portugal 1-0, a scoreline that held to the final whistle and meant the USA advanced.

The U.S. did have some late chances. With the clock ticking down, Joe-Max Moore sent an arcing cross to the far post and Clint Mathis blasted the ball agonizingly against the post. Minutes later, Cobi Jones flipped the ball to Mathis who headed a perfect pass to 20-year-old Landon Donovan who neatly slotted the ball in the net for the lone U.S. score.

Arena's face on TV was expressionless, eventually breaking into a smile only as the Polish coach congratulated him.

Such is the World Cup. Drama. Unpredictability. Who would have bet money on Japan, South Korea, Senegal and Paraguay advancing to the round of 16? Who would have predicted tournament favorites Argentina, Portugal and '98 champions France stumbling home after their round-robin games?

For me, Denmark and my native England will be the next nail-biter Saturday. Then Sunday, the Mexico game. I can't wait.

Patrick Webb is managing editor of The Daily Astorian

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