SEOUL — The thunderstorm that rolled across the city Wednesday provided a suitable backdrop for the crackling drama unfolding around the United States World Cup team.
The U.S. is only one point from securing a place in the second round. All it needs is a tie in Daejeon, South Korea, on Friday against Poland, which already has lost its first two games.
But there are nagging worries in the back of the American players' and coaches' minds.
What if the Poles come out to play as they did during qualifying, when they swept all before them in becoming the first European team after automatic qualifier France to reach Korea/Japan '02?
What if the U.S., which generally does better against teams it should not defeat than against teams it should, suddenly can't score a goal when it needs one?
What if the unthinkable happens and the U.S. loses?
Winger Earnie Stewart is certain that the Poles will not lack motivation.
"They don't want to lose three games, and they're going to come out and play as hard as they can to get a [positive] result," he said. "You never want to go out with three losses.
"They don't have any pressure, so that makes it easy on them too. They can maybe attack a little bit more than they might have thought about before. It's going to be a tough match. With two losses and no pressure, it makes them a very dangerous opponent."
Another factor comes into play.
Poland's Jerzy Dudek, the goaltender the Americans will have to beat, has a laudable reason for wanting to stop them.
"We have to make a gift to the Korean people who looked after us very well," Dudek told Agence France-Presse.
Dudek can deliver that gift if he shuts out the U.S. and Poland somehow manages to do what it has not yet done--score a goal. South Korea would then reach the second round as long as it ties Portugal or does not lose to the Portuguese by more than one goal.
Otherwise, South Korea's prospects look bleak.
A loss to Portugal and a U.S. tie or victory would make it the first host nation in World Cup history to fail to advance to the second round.
Trying to make sense of the various permutations possible in Group D would tax even the keenest mind.
This was how U.S. Soccer described one scenario on Wednesday while trying to fathom the various possibilities:
"If the U.S. loses and Portugal tops Korea, the U.S. advances if Korea's margin of defeat is two or more goals greater than the U.S. margin of defeat or if Korea's margin of defeat is one more than the U.S. margin of defeat and the U.S. maintains its edge in goals scored [4-3 entering Friday's games]."
U.S. Coach Bruce Arena claims not to be paying attention to any of it. His focus is solely on what the Americans need to do to advance.
"I'm not planning on getting any updates," he said of the Portugal-South Korea game in Incheon. "I'm sure I will get them ... but it's not important.
"What is important is that we focus on Poland and we try to win the game. We're not going to count on anybody else to get us into the second round but ourselves."
Arena and his assistants have been debating whether to rest a player or two in anticipation of the second round, but the consensus is that it would be too risky.
"I think we need to put our best team on the field," Arena said. "If we get too cute and try to play ahead, we're going to get ourselves in trouble.
"Certainly, it wouldn't hurt to give a couple of players a break because it's possible--if we do advance--that we would play on Monday, and that's a quick turnaround. It's something we've talked about, but we won't play on Monday or Tuesday unless we win [or tie] on Friday, and that's got to be our approach."
The Poles present an entirely different challenge than the Portuguese or Koreans. They are more physical, for one thing, and have the height to test the U.S. defense in the air.
"They had an outstanding run in qualifying," Arena said. "They haven't shown their best in this World Cup and we anticipate that they will against us on Friday.
"[Nigerian-born striker Emmanuel] Olisadebe was outstanding in qualifying. His speed and his ability to get behind defenses was something we saw in each and every game."
Poland holds a 6-4-1 edge over the U.S. in a series that dates to 1924, but the countries have not played since 1990.