FLORENCE, JUNE 10 -- Can it get worse for the Americans? Put it this way: They have tickets to Rome to play Italy Thursday. Czechoslovakia gave them the soccer lessons of their lives today, 5-1, and this was the team the United States figured to have its best chance against in its first World Cup finals appearance in 40 years.

Could the Americans possibly have learned enough soccer today to make up 40 years in the next three days? Speed. Passing. A karate-chopping defense. A wave of emotion set off by free elections in their home country Saturday. The Czechoslovaks had so much to throw at the United States that their captain, Ivan Hasek, actually apologized. "We're sorry for winning 5-1," he said through an interpreter. "We're happy we were able to give joy to our countrymen who came here so numerously."

Thousands of Czechoslovaks drove 13 to 15 hours to sit cheering and singing in the end zone, the cheapest seats. One said it is costing most of them a half month's salary to be here. Many brought their own food and slept in cars. Two carried an ominous banner into the cloud-covered City Stadium as lightning rolled up the hills to the north and a chill wind suddenly blew: Czechoslovakia 5, U.S.A. 0.

At least the United States scored. That's more than Canada did at the 1986 World Cup. The Americans, literally, enjoyed a moment in sun. In the second half, the sky cleared and Californian Paul Caligiuri, who scored the goal in the 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago that got the U.S. team here, broke wide-open after stealing the ball near midfield and taking a return pass from Bruce Murray of Germantown, Md. Caligiuri never might have forgiven himself had he missed; he won't forget that America's first World Cup goal since 1950 was his.

But by then Czechoslovakia had scored three times, and the Americans were playing a man short after forward Eric Wynalda had received a red card in the 52nd minute for retaliating after he had his foot stepped on. Czechoslovakia was expert in camouflaging roughness. "Eric got baited," said U.S. Coach Bob Gansler. "I believe he will learn."

What a cram course about to be administered by U.S. coaches. Faced the entire game with repeated defensive lapses in front of him, all-American goalkeeper Tony Meola from the University of Virginia all but knocked himself out -- in one scary instance, he slammed his neck into the goal post making a leaping save to his left. He even stopped one of two point-blank penalty kicks as the faster Czechoslovaks outshot the United States, 23-7.

Gansler praised Meola: "He controlled the box. He caught the crosses he needed to catch. I thought Tony technically and tactically played well. He played bravely."

Ironically, the defenders were supposed to be the Americans' strength; but as Czechoslovakia's coach, Josef Venglos, put it in plain English, "They are not organized in front of the goalmouth."

Gansler promised, "We have the determination to regroup." But consider the task. In playing Italy, a Cup favorite, in Rome, the Americans stand to learn new meaning in the term home-field advantage. When the Italians played Austria Saturday night, winning, 1-0, but dominating so much it might have been 5-0, the Olympic Stadium was in an uproar. Practically the whole country came to a stop.

Here in Florence, streets were deserted. In cafes, men huddled around television sets, roaring approval and disapproval. Women generally sat by disconsolately, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the postgame celebrations. Once begun, they didn't end until almost dawn today.

People burst into the streets. It was as if the Italians already had won the Cup. Here, phone lines overloaded, traffic piled up in gridlock, horn-blowing and wild cheering were drowned out only by police sirens. The U.S. team must now play a team superior to Czechoslovakia, with all of Italy as its cheering section.

"Italy is much better than Czechoslovakia," said Caligiuri, "but I do believe the team will respond."

The Americans had believed earlier today that they could get two points for a victory or one for a tie, which seemed essential if they were to advance beyond their three first-round games into single-elimination play. So did their fans; young men from America came marching toward the stadium, waving flags and chanting, "U.S.A." At the start, the team had the sharp wind at its back. For 15 to 20 minutes, the Americans played Czechoslovakia evenly.

Maybe they could steal a victory? They weren't in anything like the searing opening-day spotlight of Milan's huge and ultra-modern stadium. Florence has a stadium half the size, completed in 1932 and added onto several times. The crowd of 33,266 left almost 6,000 empty seats, creating a low-key impression.

But the stakes were the same, and Czechoslovakia began playing well after the American's Peter Vermes, angry from being bumped so much, sent a hard shot wide to the left. Awakened, Czechoslovakia began to dominate. Venglos attributed the surge to "the experience of our players."

Forward Tomas Skuhravy scored the first of his two goals, breaking away in the 26th minute on a give-and-go with the similarly fleet Lubomir Moravcik. That pair's burst of speed seemed to take the Americans' breath.

Worse, sweeper Michael Windischmann, of Glendale, N.Y., fouled Hasek in front of the U.S. goal. "I wanted to clear it," Windischmann said. "He got in front of me. I didn't see a replay but I'm sure I nicked him in some way and that was a penalty."

Michal Bilek, a notoriously fierce shooter and standout with Sparta Prague, stood at the penalty spot, 12 yards in front of Meola. No goaltender would care to be in the position. At that, Meola guessed correctly, diving right. Still, the ball rocketeted into the upper corner of the net.

The U.S. players looked as grim as the day when they walked off the field at the half. They returned to face more of the same. Midfielder Hasek, Bilek's partner at Sparta Prague, put in a header off a corner kick by Joszef Chovanec. They pulled it off as if they had been practicing it for 20 years. Hasek simply soared upward in front of Caligiuri and behind University of Virginia product John Harkes. Bilek went up like a rocket launch for his header.

Two minutes later, Wynalda was expelled. But 10 against 11, Caligiuri and Murray worked their midfield show, Caligiuri making the World Cup history book in the 78th minute. It conjured thoughts of an unlikely rally.

Twelve minutes later, Skuhravy scored his second goal, a header off of Chovanec's second expertly placed corner kick. This was the only goal Gansler held Meola in any way responsible, saying that he and defender Steve Trittschuh may have miscommunicated.

"The U.S. defense seemed more concerned with going on the attack than playing defense," Skuhravy said. "They gave us a lot of room."

As obvious as the outcome would be, a second penalty kick was awarded Czechoslovakia. Meola expressed his distaste later for both penalty calls.

"I didn't think the first one was a very good call," said Meola, "and I didn't think the second one was a very good call. They've already got four goals on you, and the referee {Switzerland's Kurt Rothlisberger} gives a second penalty kick."

Lubos Kubik, another scoring ace, finally got his turn. But Kubik was too cute. He tried to fake Meola with a lazy floater, but Meola again dived the correct way, making the save to his left and getting up shaking his fist enthusiastically.

But his teammates weren't responding. They seemed to be playing out the clock when Czechoslovakia scored its last goal in the 90th minute -- which was actually the 93rd minute because the referee let the game go long to compensate for time lost with injured players down.

"We played a 50-minute half," said Meola, exaggerating somewhat. "That's hard to believe that a supposedly world-class referee would do something like that."

With the Americans' hearts already broken and their minds on the exit, Czechoslovakia stormed down the field. Skuhravy passed to Miroslav Kadlec. When Meola went for Kadlec, that left him too far out of position to handle the follow-up by Milan Luhovy, another good scorer who wanted his goal.

"The most frustrating thing is that we made the oddsmakers look like kings," said Meola.

Czechoslovakia was overly gracious. The end zone crowd gave a warm chant, "U.S.A, U.S.A." And midfielder Chovanec went to great lengths, through an interpreter, to say that perhaps the Americans would pull themselves together and do well against Italy and Austria. He went so far that finally the interpreter, an Italian woman, said in an aside, "That's what he says. It's not me."

Others, too, said the Americans may recover. There, on the Tuscany horizon expressing optimism, was a familiar face, none other than the old Cowboy, Tom Landry. "We're new at this. How long did it take to get here, 40 years?" said the former Dallas coach, here with a contingent from his city that hopes to be one of the sites when the '94 Cup finals come to America.

On the bus ride back to their training camp in Tirrenia, where they may face some uncomfortable time with Gansler, the Americans would have to console themselves with what so many people back home and abroad have said: It's an achievement just to be here.

"It's part of our learning," said Caligiuri. "We have nothing to be ashamed of whatsoever."