It was bewildering.So thorough was the U.S. collapse in its World Cup opener against the CzechRepublic on Monday that it was hard to know which factor was the most decisivein the embarrassing 3-0 defeat. Was it the multiple breakdowns that led to JanKoller's all-too-easy fifth-minute goal? Was it the breathtaking talent ofCzech playmaker TomàÀás Rosick¬¥y, whose two goals (including an unstoppable,swerving 30-yard strike) put the game out of reach? Or was it the surprisinglack of cojones displayed by the Americans in Gelsenkirchen, Germany? "Ithink 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 youget killed for that." ¬∂ Considering that eight of the 11 U.S. starters hadWorld Cup experience, however, their collective timidity was stunning. The losswas the most lopsided of the tournament's first 11 games-to say nothing of arude welcome back to Europe, where the Americans are 0-7 in World Cup matchesdating to 1990. To make matters worse, their woeful minus-3 goal differentialmeans that this Saturday's showdown against Italy (page 51) in Kaiserslauternis almost certainly a must-win game if they hope to survive the first round. ¬∂What needs to improve against the Italians? "Everything," said forwardLandon Donovan, who slumbered through a nightmare game, barely receiving theball and creating few chances when he did. "The good news is it's probablynot going to get a lot worse." Maybe, maybe not. Italy, which dispatchedGhana 2-0, will enter the match knowing that a win should put the Azzurri intothe knockout round. ¬∂ Other than Reyna's 28th-minute screamer that ricochetedoff the inside of the left post ("Inches can change the game," helamented), the U.S. created no dangerous chances. Particularly mystifying wasthe continued decline of 24-year-old midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, whosepenetrating runs frustrated Portugal in the Americans' 3-2 opening-game upsetin World Cup '02, when they surprisingly reached the quarterfinals. Imprecisewith the ball at his feet, Beasley also stuck his cleats in his mouth a weekbefore the opener, telling reporters that coach Bruce Arena's refusal to revealhis lineup to the players in advance was "irritating." (In a privatemeeting Arena laid down the law to Beasley, who appeared at none of the U.S.'spress events in the five days before the game.)
Public frictionbetween the players and their coach hasn't been seen or heard in a U.S. WorldCup camp since the DefCon 4 meltdown in France '98, when the team failed to wina match under Steve Sampson. But Arena was quick to call out his two youngstars by name after Monday's belly flop, torching Donovan ("Landon showedno aggressiveness") and his longtime running mate ("We got nothing outof Beasley"). Told of Arena's broadside and then asked if he'd be back inthe starting lineup against Italy, Beasley sounded pessimistic. "If [Arena]said that, I don't think so," he replied. "I was back there defendingthe whole time. I don't know what he wants me to do."
The team's moodafter the loss was an abrupt departure from the self-assurance that hadpermeated the U.S. camp during the week before the game. From the moment theU.S. drew the World Cup's second-toughest group last December, Arena and hisassistants exhaustively scouted their first-round opponents. Besides followingthose teams to Egypt, Italy, Turkey and the Czech Republic to watch friendlies,the coaches tracked the Group E players with their respective professionalclubs; assistant Glenn Myernick said he scouted more than 50 games involvingCzech players alone in the past six months. The coaches also built a library ofgame videos, including a half-dozen Ghana DVDs acquired through a distributorof African food in Washington, D.C., all of which were broken down and turnedinto quick studies of each individual opponent the Americans would face.
"The Czechsaren't going to know us like we know them," Arena said last week in hisHamburg hotel suite, opening one of the three thick binders on his coffee table(this one titled Czech Republic Scouting Book) bearing detailed diagrams ofplays, depth charts and firsthand reports on each Group E team. "I don'tknow if we'll win the game, but we'll be prepared. Everything we're doing is alittle better than in the last World Cup. We've picked a better roster. We have23 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 onMonday 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," saidMyernick. "Where they get in trouble is when they're turned and have toface their own goal and get into footraces." Donovan, the team's mostlethal finisher, was shifted from attacking midfielder to forward, where hecould outpace the Czech defense and take advantage of quick combination passesnear the goal. The ascendant midfielder Bobby Convey, 23, was expected to blazedown the left wing, hoping to expose the slower Grygera. That meant the equallyfast Beasley, a better defender than Convey, shifted from the left wing to theright, where he was charged with stopping defender Marek Jankulovski, whom theU.S. deemed the Czechs' most consistent threat on the left side.
But no task wasmore 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 ledthe team with nine goals during qualifying-on set pieces. The Americans'Achilles' heel in the last World Cup was defending free kicks, with lapsesresulting 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 Terminatorto administer rough justice in penalty-box scrums.
"You'll seeelbows being thrown, pulling, punching, holding-anything to get the edge onsomebody. I've even been hit in the privates a couple of times," Onyewusaid 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 toredefine the standards of the centerback position. "I'm aperfectionist," he said, "and when it's all said and done, I'd likepeople to say he was perfect in that position, that this is how you should playit."
Onyewu wasn'tperfect on Monday-his clearing header to the middle of the field landed righton the foot of Rosick¬¥y to set up his wondergoal-but he was one of the fewAmericans who played at a World Cup level. (Koller's goal came when he wasbeing marked by veteran Eddie Pope.) It was Onyewu whose stoutshoulder-to-shoulder defense caused Koller to strain his hamstring late in thefirst half and leave the game.
In the end, though,there was nothing for the U.S. to point to with pride. For four years theAmericans had looked forward to the chance to show the global soccer communitythat their quarterfinal appearance in the 2002 Cup was no fluke, that theycould go toe-to-toe with the finest teams on European soil. Against the Czechsthey failed miserably, putting themselves in a desperate situation againstItaly on Saturday. "We've got to go into that game to win it," Reynasaid. "We have to have three points now and give ourselves a chance. Wehave to show what we're made of."
If you're a fan of U.S. soccer, you can only hope that they didn't already dothat against the Czechs.
For daily World Cup coverage from Germany, includingreports from Grant Wahl, Mark Bechtel and Jonah Freedman, plus the World Cupblog, go to SI.com/soccer.
"I think the occasion got to some of the guys,"said Reyna. "They were a little bit hesitant, and at this level you GETKILLED for that."
Photograph by Bob Martin
At 6'8", Koller (9) was too much for Pope to handle and more than Arena(opposite) had bargained for.
PETR DAVID JOSEK/AP
SIMON BRUTY (2)
¬†RED,WHITE AND MOSTLY BLUE
Counted on for speed and a spark against the Czechs' suspect defense, Donovan(center) failed to deliver, disappointing a hearty contingent of U.S. fans inGelsenkirchen.