The turning point came 20 seconds into U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna's World Cup debut. He found himself facedown on the damp green floor of the Pare des Princes in Paris, his ribs sore, the victim of a mugging from behind by a thick-boned midfielder from the former East Germany. The difference between the 24-year-old Reyna and 24-year-old Jens Jeremies was in each one's sense of immediacy. Reyna and his teammates had been hoping, naively, to grow into their opening match as it unfolded on Monday night. Jeremies and the other Germans knocked that hope out of them quickly.
"We let them beat us up in the beginning of the game," said U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller. One of those in no mood to waste time was German captain J�rgen Klinsmann, who used his head to create the opening goal in the eighth minute. Klinsmann received a corner kick and nodded the ball to Andy M�ller, whose header slipped, with inches to spare, between U.S. midfielder Mike Burns and the goalpost. At half-time the American players sat in their locker room as if waiting for John Harkes to yell at them. Unfortunately the 31-year-old Harkes, the former U.S. captain, had been cut from the team two months earlier. How the Americans missed the spirit and venom he would have brought to this overwhelming occasion.
In the second half the U.S. pushed forward with the help of offensive-minded substitutes Frankie Hejduk, Roy Wegerle and Tab Ramos, only to see Klinsmann counterattack with a goal in the 65th minute to seal Germany's 2-0 victory. The Americans now go into their incendiary match against Iran on Sunday needing a victory to have any hope of advancing to the second round, and knowing that they can't afford to waste time pondering how to earn it. "In all honesty, some of us were a little bit in awe of the game," said Reyna. "You could see that before we went out."
How could the U.S. ever have imagined beating Germany? Since 1954, while the Germans had won their three World Cup titles, the Americans had won but a single World Cup match—a 2-1 upset of Colombia in Los Angeles four years ago. True, coach Berti Vogts had failed in his promise to bring in younger players after the 1994 Cup, in which Germany fell ignominiously in the quarterfinals to Bulgaria. But by any concrete measure the Germans seemed invulnerable. In 26 tournament matches since that World Cup, they lost just once and seized the '96 European Championship along the way.
Eight members of the American team have played professionally in the German first or second division over the last decade, and most of them, a German would be quick to point out, weren't able to survive more than a year or two. But the U.S. players would take a different view of their time abroad. They would argue that they had succeeded simply by making it to Germany after having been raised in a country known above all others for its ignorance of the world's most popular sport.
If there is a global misunderstanding about soccer in the U.S., it is that American players are soft suburbanites driven to practice after school each day by their mothers. The truth of this U.S. team is just the opposite. In the world of soccer the Americans are the orphans, the self-made men who are still relatively unknown in their own country. The German players, by comparison, were born into a kind of soccer wealth. Rather than denouncing the arrogance of German soccer, however, the Americans last week were counting on it. It was their best tactical advantage.
On June 5 the U.S. repaired to the bucolic elegance of the Ch�teau de Pizay, a 14th-century hotel of mural ceilings isolated in the Beaujolais vineyards in central France, north of Lyons. "Nonstop excitement," said defender Alexi Lalas of the Americans' stay. Every few minutes a goose would honk or a rooster would crow, reminding the team that it was in the middle of nowhere.
"The players are spending time together," said their Father Flanagan, coach Steve Sampson, a 41-year-old Californian who sounds unerringly like the TV actor Robert Urich. Sampson, a former college coach, has never played in or coached a professional club game, but in the three years leading up to the Cup he guided the Americans to upset wins over Argentina, Mexico and Brazil. Nevertheless, his pedigree was a mongrel's in comparison to that of Vogts's; in 1974 Vogts was the defender who silenced Dutch star Johan Cruyff as Germany won its second World Cup. "If I go to watch [the German club] Kaiserslautern play during the course of the year and Berti Vogts is there, the most he will do is shake my hand and say hello," Sampson said, his voice rising.
In the seclusion of the French countryside, the last of an assortment of U.S. injuries melted away. Most important, top striker Eric Wynalda, who had undergone knee surgery in April, proved that he had recovered his speed in a 4-0 practice-game victory held behind closed doors on June 9 against a French second-division team from Gueugnon. Now Sampson could start Wynalda and ask him to run himself out of gas in a first-half attempt to score. He then would replace Wynalda with Wegerle, the 34-year-old former South African who, as the lone striker in the U.S.'s 3-6-1 formation, could serve as an outlet man capable of holding the ball upfield for precious seconds while his teammates charged forward in counterattack. If everything worked, the Germans might—might—be frustrated.
"I've never had a better feeling before a game," Sampson confided after the Americans arrived in Paris last Saturday afternoon. The spine of his starting team had an understanding of the opponent, building from sweeper Thomas Dooley and the recently naturalized David R�gis, a Frenchman who plays for the Bundesliga's Karlsruhe team, in defense; through Chad Deering and Reyna, teammates at VfL Wolfsburg, in midfield; and winding up with Wynalda, who made his name as a striker in Germany from 1992 to '95.