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It was bewildering. So thorough was the U.S. collapse in its World Cup opener against the Czech Republic on Monday that it was hard to know which factor was the most decisive in the embarrassing 3-0 defeat. Was it the multiple breakdowns that led to Jan Koller's all-too-easy fifth-minute goal? Was it the breathtaking talent of Czech playmaker Tom�?s Rosick�y, whose two goals (including an unstoppable, swerving 30-yard strike) put the game out of reach? Or was it the surprising lack of cojones displayed by the Americans in Gelsenkirchen, Germany? "I think the occasion got to some of the guys," said captain Claudio Reyna. "You could see that they were a little bit hesitant, and at this level you get killed for that." � Considering that eight of the 11 U.S. starters had World Cup experience, however, their collective timidity was stunning. The loss was the most lopsided of the tournament's first 11 games-to say nothing of a rude welcome back to Europe, where the Americans are 0-7 in World Cup matches dating to 1990. To make matters worse, their woeful minus-3 goal differential means that this Saturday's showdown against Italy (page 51) in Kaiserslautern is almost certainly a must-win game if they hope to survive the first round. � What needs to improve against the Italians? "Everything," said forward Landon Donovan, who slumbered through a nightmare game, barely receiving the ball and creating few chances when he did. "The good news is it's probably not going to get a lot worse." Maybe, maybe not. Italy, which dispatched Ghana 2-0, will enter the match knowing that a win should put the Azzurri into the knockout round. � Other than Reyna's 28th-minute screamer that ricocheted off the inside of the left post ("Inches can change the game," he lamented), the U.S. created no dangerous chances. Particularly mystifying was the continued decline of 24-year-old midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, whose penetrating runs frustrated Portugal in the Americans' 3-2 opening-game upset in World Cup '02, when they surprisingly reached the quarterfinals. Imprecise with the ball at his feet, Beasley also stuck his cleats in his mouth a week before the opener, telling reporters that coach Bruce Arena's refusal to reveal his lineup to the players in advance was "irritating." (In a private meeting Arena laid down the law to Beasley, who appeared at none of the U.S.'s press events in the five days before the game.)
Public friction between the players and their coach hasn't been seen or heard in a U.S. World Cup camp since the DefCon 4 meltdown in France '98, when the team failed to win a match under Steve Sampson. But Arena was quick to call out his two young stars by name after Monday's belly flop, torching Donovan ("Landon showed no aggressiveness") and his longtime running mate ("We got nothing out of Beasley"). Told of Arena's broadside and then asked if he'd be back in the starting lineup against Italy, Beasley sounded pessimistic. "If [Arena] said that, I don't think so," he replied. "I was back there defending the whole time. I don't know what he wants me to do."
The team's mood after the loss was an abrupt departure from the self-assurance that had permeated the U.S. camp during the week before the game. From the moment the U.S. drew the World Cup's second-toughest group last December, Arena and his assistants exhaustively scouted their first-round opponents. Besides following those teams to Egypt, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic to watch friendlies, the coaches tracked the Group E players with their respective professional clubs; assistant Glenn Myernick said he scouted more than 50 games involving Czech players alone in the past six months. The coaches also built a library of game videos, including a half-dozen Ghana DVDs acquired through a distributor of African food in Washington, D.C., all of which were broken down and turned into quick studies of each individual opponent the Americans would face.
"The Czechs aren't going to know us like we know them," Arena said last week in his Hamburg hotel suite, opening one of the three thick binders on his coffee table (this one titled Czech Republic Scouting Book) bearing detailed diagrams of plays, depth charts and firsthand reports on each Group E team. "I don't know if we'll win the game, but we'll be prepared. Everything we're doing is a little better than in the last World Cup. We've picked a better roster. We have 23 fit players to choose from. There's no excuses. If we're not successful, [it's because] we're not good enough."
Arena's lineup on Monday reflected the need for speed against a Czech back line that, the U.S. concluded, was slow and vulnerable, especially right back Zdenek Grygera. "We've seen every goal they've conceded starting in 2004," said Myernick. "Where they get in trouble is when they're turned and have to face their own goal and get into footraces." Donovan, the team's most lethal finisher, was shifted from attacking midfielder to forward, where he could outpace the Czech defense and take advantage of quick combination passes near the goal. The ascendant midfielder Bobby Convey, 23, was expected to blaze down the left wing, hoping to expose the slower Grygera. That meant the equally fast Beasley, a better defender than Convey, shifted from the left wing to the right, where he was charged with stopping defender Marek Jankulovski, whom the U.S. deemed the Czechs' most consistent threat on the left side.
But no task was more important than the one facing 24-year-old centerback Oguchi Onyewu: shutting down the 6'8" Koller-the Paul Bunyan of the penalty box, who led the team with nine goals during qualifying-on set pieces. The Americans' Achilles' heel in the last World Cup was defending free kicks, with lapses resulting in crushing goals by South Korea and Germany. In the 6'4", 210-pound Onyewu, however, the U.S. for the first time had its own Terminator to administer rough justice in penalty-box scrums.
"You'll see elbows being thrown, pulling, punching, holding-anything to get the edge on somebody. I've even been hit in the privates a couple of times," Onyewu said last Saturday. "You've got to try and keep it as clean as possible, but soccer is not a noncontact sport." Onyewu wants nothing less than to redefine the standards of the centerback position. "I'm a perfectionist," he said, "and when it's all said and done, I'd like people to say he was perfect in that position, that this is how you should play it."
Onyewu wasn't perfect on Monday-his clearing header to the middle of the field landed right on the foot of Rosick�y to set up his wondergoal-but he was one of the few Americans who played at a World Cup level. ( Koller's goal came when he was being marked by veteran Eddie Pope.) It was Onyewu whose stout shoulder-to-shoulder defense caused Koller to strain his hamstring late in the first half and leave the game.
In the end, though,
there was nothing for the U.S. to point to with pride. For four years the
Americans had looked forward to the chance to show the global soccer community
that their quarterfinal appearance in the 2002 Cup was no fluke, that they
could go toe-to-toe with the finest teams on European soil. Against the Czechs
they failed miserably, putting themselves in a desperate situation against
Italy on Saturday. "We've got to go into that game to win it," Reyna
said. "We have to have three points now and give ourselves a chance. We
have to show what we're made of."