U.S. Adjusts on the Fly to Unusual Number of Ejections

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany, June 17 -- The two ejections came in such quick succession, a red card on defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni just before halftime and then, two minutes into the second half, a second yellow card on defender Eddie Pope, that the players on the U.S. national team barely had time to think. This was a situation they were not prepared for -- playing nine men vs. 10 against Italy, which lost midfielder Daniele de Rossi to a red card in the 28th minute.

"The most shocking part was we were up a guy, and then a couple of minutes later, we were down a guy," U.S. defender Jimmy Conrad said. "I don't know if we had time to react. We had to bunker in and fight and get a result."

They got the result, a 1-1 draw, which keeps their hopes alive for advancing out of Group E. And while Coach Bruce Arena and his players were thrilled with the way they responded to such adversity, they were also annoyed that they were even put in that position.

"We deserved to win, except the ref ruined the game for us because we looked like the better team," team captain Claudio Reyna said. "The referees have been incredible so far, but it was clear to see he was too quick to pull the second yellow on Eddie."

Referee Jorge Larrionda, from Uruguay, was suspended for six months by his football association for unspecified "irregularities" and as a result missed the 2002 World Cup. Larrionda whistled the teams for a total of 37 fouls (24 on the United States). Only three other games in World Cup history ever featured three ejections. FIFA does not make officials available for postgame comments.

The Americans wanted to be physical, particularly against Italian playmaker Francesco Totti, who seemed especially frustrated with the contact. But it often seemed as if the Italian players dropped to the ground whenever they were touched.

"That's the referee's job on the field to deal with it," Arena said. "There were no yellow cards on the field today for diving. Maybe he's right. I've got to look at the tape."

DeRossi was the first to receive a red card, in the 28th minute for a vicious elbow to forward Brian McBride's face. McBride, who bled heavily and received three stitches under his left eye, said that DeRossi went into the U.S. locker room to apologize after the game.

"That was a red card," Arena said. "That was a vicious elbow and it could've broken his face. I believe that was an appropriate call. I'm not sure Pablo, if that's a straight red, that tackle. That's the judgment of the referee. The second yellow on Eddie Pope was a little harsh."

Both Mastroeni and Pope were surprised with their ejections. Pope said that he got a lot of the ball on his tackle against forward Alberto Gilardino, and that he didn't think that Larrionda realized that Pope was already playing with one caution. As for Mastroeni, he admitted that his challenge on Andrea Pirlo was a strong tackle and perhaps a little late, but he got up expecting to see a yellow card.

"I think the referee was just waiting to make it equal after giving DeRossi his red card," Mastroeni said. That notion "definitely wasn't going through my head -- maybe it should have. I was thinking, 'Let's get after them, let's be aggressive.' That play, I was going down to win the ball, and I felt like if we could win the ball there, we had two or three players in a good offensive position."

At least Arena and his players could use the intermission to recover and adjust for Mastroeni's loss. There was no such luck after Pope's ejection in the 47th minute. The U.S. team had practiced 10-on-11 situations before, but never nine-on-10. Said Arena, "I can't call a timeout and I can't bring them into a huddle. I think the composure the guys had, the understanding tactically what needed to be done, was superb."

With three players off the field, there was suddenly more space in which to play. Speedy DaMarcus Beasley replaced Clint Dempsey in the 62nd minute, and the Americans knew that with Italy pressing forward, it would be subject to counterattacks.

"When you're down a man, you've just got to play smart," Conrad said. "Everybody understands now that it's going to be a team effort. There's no 'Me, I'm going to try to do it all myself.' It's a collective effort. Being down to nine guys puts you in that mindset."

Neither Pope nor Mastroeni will be available to play against Ghana on Thursday. DeRossi will miss Italy's game against the Czech Republic and could miss another, should Italy advance; he will be subject to FIFA's disciplinary committee. Ghana will face a similar situation as the Americans, with Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari suspended for accumulation of yellow cards.

"We'll find ways to persevere," Mastroeni said.

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