U.S. Looking for an Assist

Brian McBride
The United States' only goal came from a mistake by Italian defender Cristian Zaccardo, who kicked the ball into his own net. (Reuters)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

NUREMBERG, Germany, June 21 -- A week and a half has passed since the U.S. national soccer team opened its World Cup campaign with a three-goal loss to the Czech Republic, and even now, as the first round of this stirring tournament reaches a conclusion, that dreadful result is still shadowing the Americans like a relentless defender.

They could break out of their scoring funk Thursday and defeat Ghana here at Franken Stadium, but because of their poor start, their future would be dictated by others.

"We're going to have to live with the first game and what happened, and now there's nothing we can do except win," forward-midfielder Landon Donovan said. "If we get our four points and it doesn't end up being enough, we made a mistake in the first game and shot ourselves in the foot."

A victory would get the Americans to four points in the standings -- often the threshold for earning a berth in the second round -- but if the Czechs manage at least a tie against first-place Italy in a match played simultaneously Thursday in Hamburg, they also would finish with four points.

The first tiebreaker is goal differential, and that opening game nine days ago in Gelsenkirchen would give the Czech Republic a significant edge.

Unless, of course, the Americans beat Ghana by at least four goals -- a preposterous suggestion considering their only goal in the first two games was knocked in by their opponent in a 1-1 tie with Italy, and they have registered just one shot on goal in 180 minutes.

The U.S. team's best, and perhaps only realistic hope is simply to beat Ghana and hope Italy handles the Czechs. Ghana lost to the Italians, 2-0, in their opening Cup match.

"We know that, whatever scenario is in the other game, we have to win as a starting point," U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said. "If we win the game and have four points, we have a chance."

Four years ago, during their improbable run to the quarterfinals, the Americans were in quite a different situation. After earning a win and a tie in the first two games, they headed into their finale against Poland knowing a victory would seal their place in the round of 16 and a tie would force third-place Portugal to beat leader South Korea to surpass them. The Americans lost badly, but the Portuguese fell too.

This time, regardless of what they do, they will need help from the Italians.

It creates an awkward situation for the U.S. players, who were involved in an emotional and, at times, petulant tie with Italy last Saturday in Kaiserslautern.

"As far as I'm concerned," Donovan said with a sly grin earlier this week, "they're the nicest guys in the world."

The Americans, however, will have to address several of their own concerns before they start turning to Italy for assistance.

Statistically, their attack has barely existed, but until the Italy match disintegrated in a flurry of red cards and forced the U.S. team to take a defensive posture, they were showing much more initiative than in the opener.

Arena said this week that he expects the Ghana match to open up and allow for an abundance of scoring opportunities. Whether his team can put them on target is another pressing matter.

"We're in a position now to get through, so the team knows we have to score; that's obvious," team captain Claudio Reyna said. "This team has done it before, we know we can break out and have a game where we score a few goals. And hopefully this is the one."

The Americans have to be careful about becoming preoccupied with their attack, because the defense will have a monumental task stopping Ghana. The quick Black Stars ran around, ran past and ran over the Czechs during a 2-0 victory last weekend that could have been much worse.

Two U.S. defensive starters -- Eddie Pope and Pablo Mastroeni -- will serve one-game suspensions, but two of Ghana's top attackers -- Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan -- are also out with disciplinary issues.

"We are cool, we are cool, we are ready," said Ghana midfielder Stephen Appiah, who forms a devastating central midfield tandem with Chelsea's Michael Essien.

"This Black Stars team is not afraid of anybody," said Ratomir Dujkovic, Ghana's Serbian-born coach. "If the Black Stars continue on this level of football, I'm not worried. In football, anything is possible, but I am still an optimist and I believe we can reach the semifinal" of the entire tournament.

Ghana, once known for underachieving on the international stage, is also carrying the hopes of African soccer, which has watched most of its representatives drop out of contention.

Asked his reaction to most of Africa backing the Black Stars, Arena responded, "When we get on the field tomorrow, the rest of the continent doesn't matter."

What does matter is whether the Americans can finally score a goal or two on their own and make their case for a second-round berth.

"It's pretty clear what we have to do," Arena said. "The result against Italy has given us a lot of confidence, and I have no doubt we'll be ready to play."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company