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Michael Lewis

December 10, 2005
Getting out of the first round will be difficult for the U.S., but certainly not impossible

By Michael Lewis
National Editor

Leipzig, Germany -- Well, it could have been worse. But it certainly was bad enough.

After all, he United States could have been placed with Brazil, the Netherlands and Ghana in the ultimate "Group of Death" for this World Cup.

In reality, the Americans wound up with Italy, Czech Republic and Ghana.

And that reality bites.

Friday night's draw will make getting out of the first round in one piece not impossible, but definitely more difficult for a team that historically has experienced major problems winning in Europe.

U.S. coach Bruce Arena put on his best face and smile in the post-draw meet-the-press conference in the mixed zone.

"I almost thought we were going to get the opening game or we were going to be the last team picked," he said. "You know, I have no problems with it. It is what it is."

He added: "We have our hands full."

As optimistic as he sounded, the reality is that the U.S. is in arguably the most difficult, if not the toughest group of the eight for the 32-team field.

More experienced, more worldly and much wiser this time around, the U.S. still faces a stiff challenge.

Let's take a look at the Americans' opponents:

* The top-seeded Italians, who incidentally, grabbed the last group top seed by a point over the U.S., are ranked 12th in the world. Unless you have been hiding in a cave for the past three decades, you already know that they are a tough nut to crack in the back, thanks to a traditionally hard-nosed defense and talented and nimble goalkeepers.

* The Czech Republic, a newcomer on the international scene after the breakup of Czechoslovakia, is ranked second in the world. The Czechs were one of the surprise sides at Euro 2004. Crafty midfielder Pavel Nedved came out of retirement to boost the Czechs to a pair of 1-0 playoff wins over Norway. Arena voted Nedved one of his top three players in the FIFA world player of the year a few years ago.

* Ghana, World Cup newbies, just might be the best African team in the tournament. Does the name Michael Essien ring a bell? It should. He plays midfield for Chelsea in the English Premiership and became the highest transfer in African history this past August (a cool $41.5 million).

Arena reminded reporters that the U.S. had defeated favored Portugal, 3-2, in its World Cup opener three years ago.

"We opened up with one of the top teams in the world in 2002," he said.

Yes, the U.S. did stun Portugal, taking a three-goal advantage and holding on for a 3-2 triumph in its first game in 2002 in Korea, and then held the hosts to a 1-1 draw before falling to Poland, 3-1, in its final opening-round encounter. The U.S. rebounded with a 2-0 second-round win over Mexico before it was eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals, 1-0.

But that was on the other side of the world, the first World Cup played out of Europe and the Americas, where the playing field became a little more level between the haves and the have-nots (just ask surprise-team Korea, which had never won a World Cup match before that tournament. Yet, it finished fourth).

The U.S., on the other hand, has been abysmal through the years in Europe, in the World Cup, friendlies or other encounters or tournaments.

In World Cup competition in Europe, the U.S. is an imperfect 0-7, scoring but four times and surrendering 19 goals (in contrast, the Americans are a competitive 6-7-5 in the Americas or Orient.

The Americans' overall record across the Atlantic is not much better. They're 11-33-6.

But Arena did not see playing in Europe as a home-field disadvantage.

"I don't think in Europe it is an issue," he said earlier this week. "Except for Germany.

"It's still neutral, regardless. It's not like a full stadium."

Of fans cheering against you.

But as I’ve learned many times before, nothing is impossible.

Despite its No. 2 ranking, the Czechs are within striking range of the U.S. While most of their best players perform abroad, I don’t think their First Division is that much better than MLS.

On my way to the Summer Olympics in Athens last year, I took a three-day stop in Prague and wound up watching Sparta Prague against defending champion FC Slavacko.

At the time I wrote that the game “wasn't too much to write home about. . . . Every MLS team would have little or no trouble competing in the Czech First Division (hopefully all of the country’s best players are performing elsewhere or the Czech Republic will be in deep trouble for World Cup qualifying). The quality of play was poor, defensive marking, particularly close to the net, was virtually non-existent and many shots were blocked before they could reach their mark. Some of the play was quite predictable . . . Martin Petras' only offensive contribution to the match was to send Jan Rezek a pass down the right side again and again and again.

”The stadium was empty -- which stunned us for a season opener. We figured there were 6,000 fans there to watch Sparta, the defending champions take on FC Slavacko. As it turned out, we were kind. The official attendance was reported as 4,558 in next day's newspapers. We wondered why the low attendance before I remembered that a corruption scandal recently broke in Czech soccer. That could have made fans stay away, no doubt turning some of them off.”

So, a tie or a victory is not out of the question.

If Arena and the company can reach the second round this time around, it will be a fabulous accomplishment, probably a much more noteworthy achievement than what transpired three years ago.

A quarterfinal finish as in 2002? Incredible.

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