By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany, June 17 -- When it finally ended, after Brian McBride's bloody face had been repaired, after the three red cards and the own goal and the disallowed goal, after the breathtaking saves by Kasey Keller and the sideline tirades by Bruce Arena, the U.S. players fell, one by one, to the turf.
Mostly it was a product of the exhaustion of playing shorthanded for nearly half the game against one of international soccer's most fabled teams. However, the enormity of what they had just accomplished -- securing a 1-1 tie with Italy in a gripping World Cup match played in a mountainside stadium before a deafening crowd and a network TV audience back home -- sapped the Americans of energy and emotion.
"These guys bled today for our country and our team," Keller said.
And because of that effort, just five days after one of the lowest moments in Arena's coaching career, the Americans (0-1-1) are still very much alive in their pursuit of a round-of-16 berth.
Despite sitting at the bottom of the Group E standings, they would earn one of the group's two berths in the next stage if they defeat Ghana (1-1) on Thursday in Nuremberg and Italy (1-0-1) beats the Czech Republic (1-1) on the same day in Hamburg. That promising scenario was made possible by Ghana's 2-0 victory earlier in the day over the Czechs, who had thumped the United States, 3-0, on Monday.
If the Italians don't win, the United States has a chance, based on tie-breakers, although the Americans will have to win by at least four goals to get through that way.
"We are where we want to be on Day 3," Arena said. "We want to be alive, and who knows what could happen."
No matter what happens in the coming days, Saturday's match before 46,000 at Fritz Walter Stadium will not soon be forgotten.
Italy went ahead midway through the first half on Alberto Gilardino's header, but the United States tied it five minutes later on an own goal. The scoring ended, the drama did not.
Italy's Daniele de Rossi was soon ejected for elbowing McBride under the left eye, but the Americans' advantage didn't survive the half as Pablo Mastroeni was red-carded for an overeager challenge. A minute into the second half, U.S. defender Eddie Pope was dismissed for a second yellow card, leaving the U.S. team in tremendous peril against a three-time world champion and one of the pre-tournament favorites.
"It was strange out there," said Pope, who will join Mastroeni in serving a one-game suspension. "Both of those calls, it was a little harsh of the referee."
With every player helping defensively, the Americans endured the Italians' relentless pressure and selectively waited for their opportunity to attack. In the 65th minute, they thought they had taken the lead on a DaMarcus Beasley shot, but the apparent goal was negated by an offside call against McBride. Afterward, McBride admitted that he was not only offside, but had screened goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
"A lot of teams would lose their composure and use it as an excuse for not winning on the day or losing," Arena said. "Our guys played with a lot of heart and certainly redeemed ourselves."
Playing with more urgency and effectiveness than they did in their opener, the Americans set a nice early pace. Italy, however, wasn't flustered and patiently waited for an opportunity to strike. It came in the 22nd minute.
From 25 yards, dead-ball specialist Andrea Pirlo served a free kick deep into the box. Gilardino delayed his run, then slipped in unmarked for a lunging six-yarder past the defenseless Keller.
The equalizer came in the 27th off a set piece, a Bobby Convey free kick from near the right sideline. His looping effort toward the far post was dangerous but manageable for the Italians, but defender Cristian Zaccardo flailed at it with his left foot and spun the ball into the corner of his net. It wasn't the creative gem for which the American attack had been searching the last game and a half, but it got them even.
Soon, the game turned in their favor in a bloody incident at midfield. McBride, who has a long history of concussions and fractured cheekbones, took a blow under the eye from de Rossi. As blood poured down McBride's face, Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda reached for his red card and sent off de Rossi.
In a matter of moments, the tenor of the match had changed dramatically.
"I thought, 'What a great two minutes for U.S. soccer there -- we had an own goal and a red card,' " said defender Jimmy Conrad, who made his World Cup debut by replacing Convey in the 51st minute. "That's the break we needed. It felt like a nice 2002 moment [when the Americans reached the quarterfinals] and kind of shifted the momentum.
"And then we did a good job of giving it right back -- or actually the referee gave it right back."
Mastroeni was tossed just before the break, Pope just after it.
However, Keller came to the rescue in the 73rd minute with a remarkable reflex save on Alessandro del Piero's running toe volley and then thwarted del Piero again on a long bid six minutes later.
"If we had lost this game," Keller said, "I would have thrown up."
The Italians kept coming, driving in crosses and touching passes in and around the box as the Americans chased the play in desperation. The ball took wild bounces off players and shots skipped wide of both U.S. posts.
"Pablo and I were in the locker room, thinking, 'Let's just get a point, let's just get a point,' " Pope said. "We were jumping up and down going crazy. It was actually a good night for us because no one expected us to do anything. Now we have something to look forward to."