Yanks Need Breakthroughs

Coach Bruce Arena plans to make lineup changes for the U.S. squad, above.
Coach Bruce Arena plans to make lineup changes for the U.S. squad, above. (By Ivan Sekretarev -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany, June 16 -- The U.S. national soccer team spent 15 months qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, along the way passing through Grenada, Panama and many other distant outposts to reach its final destination in Germany.

Coach Bruce Arena spent months deliberating about his personnel and a recent few weeks preparing his final roster for what he and U.S. Soccer Federation officials trusted would be another step forward on the international stage.

But as they practiced Friday in this small city tucked in the hills of southwestern Germany, the Americans were acutely aware that their sojourn to soccer's summit will come to an embarrassingly quick end if they lose to Italy on Saturday night at Fritz Walter Stadium.

Six days and done.

"We know what we need -- we need a result of some magnitude," team captain Claudio Reyna said. "That urgency could help us."

After being thumped by the Czech Republic in its opener Monday, the U.S. team badly needs a victory against the eminent Italians to maintain a realistic chance of reaching the round of 16.

Although a tie would not eliminate the Americans, they would probably then have to beat Ghana by a wide margin in next week's first-round finale in Nuremberg to have any shot at one of Group E's two golden tickets to the next stage.

Their chances Saturday? Consider: The United States has never beaten Italy in five meetings (0-3-2) and has never won a World Cup match staged in Europe (0-8). It is coming off one of its poorest performances in a meaningful match in recent memory and the traditionally conservative Italians now boast a menacing attack to match their sublime defense.

To start the World Cup by playing two championship-caliber opponents is "pretty awesome," Arena said. "It is what it is. I didn't pick the balls out of the thing at the World Cup draw [in December]. That's what they gave us and that's fine."

Not so fine if a positive result is imperative.

The Americans spent a day or two regrouping from their 3-0 loss to the Czechs before beginning intensive preparations for Italy, which opened with a 2-0 triumph over Ghana on Monday. Arena and the players swear there are no lingering effects from the one-sided defeat and that several good training sessions have helped restore confidence.

"No one put their heads down, training was a great commitment, people were smiling and having a good time and building for the next game," Reyna said.

Emotionally they may have rebounded, but physically they will have much to improve upon. After yielding an early goal against the Czechs, the Americans had to divert from their game plan and never showed much initiative. They hardly looked like the team that had played with such supreme confidence in the 2002 World Cup, roaring to the quarterfinals, or had plowed through the qualifying stages for this year's tournament.

"We better have a bit of an attitude that we can play and that we are ready to play over 90 minutes or we're not going to be successful," Arena said. "Our 11 players on the field have to be ready to play tomorrow."

Who those 11 players will be is shrouded in secrecy, Arena's standard approach to international matches during his 7 1/2 -year tenure. On Tuesday, Arena pledged to make changes to his lineup that started against the Czechs, but stopped short of revealing details.

Based on Monday's result and Arena's tendencies, it appears veteran midfielder John O'Brien will rejoin the lineup. O'Brien, injured and out of shape most of the spring, played the last half of Monday's match. Eddie Johnson, a fast forward with a dangerous shot, could join Brian McBride on the front line, allowing Landon Donovan to drop back into his preferred role in midfield after a listless effort as a withdrawn forward against the Czechs.

The strategy against the Italians?

"They are getting older and we need to run at them, just be aggressive, take people on, get crosses in and just try to score goals," midfielder Bobby Convey said. "It's going to be difficult. They're a hard team to break down."

Added Reyna: "Everyone needs to be brave and want the ball, but also I think we need to be patient at times and mix up our game. We have 90 minutes to try to win a game, and not try to win it in the first two minutes or lose it in the first two minutes. . . . It's a big challenge for us."

U.S. Notes: Arena addressed comments made by Johnson on Wednesday in which the 23-year-old compared World Cup competition to war.

"It was a little distorted, the war analogy," Arena said. "I'm sure our player did not intend to really state that this game is a war. We are playing a game. . . . We have the greatest admiration and respect for our soldiers."

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