ROME, JUNE 14 -- When did defeat ever feel like victory?

How could mere inches have separated the Americans from taking Rome and all of Italy?

An upstart country appearing in the World Cup soccer finals for the first time in 40 years almost tied a Cup favorite on its grounds tonight. That's worth celebrating Italian-style.

The United States players combined American heart with European passion to come away with a 1-0 defeat against Italy and walk away from Olympic Stadium with heads high.

"They came back from the ashes," U.S. Coach Bob Gansler said, "and they've got to feel like a phoenix today."

The Americans lost Sunday to Czechoslovakia, 5-1. They had been "embarrassed," said Peter Vermes, who all but beat Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga tonight, getting the ball almost past him, only to have Zenga save it with his backside in a miraculous bit of acrobatics.

The Americans' moment to remember came midway in the second half. Bruce Murray of Germantown, Md., took one of his patented free kicks from 27 yards out on the left side. Zenga dived to his right, making the save but failing to hold the ball. It rolled to Vermes, who was running toward the goal.

"I saw the ball come off the keeper," said Vermes, the first American to play in Hungary's First Division and Holland's First Division. "I was going to try to roof {lift} it. Then I thought Zenga was going to stand up. I shot low. It squeezed between his legs, but deflected on his rear end."

The ball squirted across the front of the goalmouth, a foot from the line. But no American was close enough to prevent Riccardo Ferri from kicking the ball clear. A collective sigh sounded almost like a roar coming from the majority of Italians in the crowd of 73,423. A superpower of soccer was holding off the Cameroon of the West.

Immense fortune put the Americans in a position to tie. The Italians scored in the 11th minute when the flamboyant Gianluca Vialli left a ball near his own feet, perfectly positioned for Giuseppe Giannini, usually a playmaker but in this case a finisher. He high-stepped the legs of the falling Michael Windischmann and put a point-blank shot past Tony Meola and into the left side of the net.

But the game turned on a penalty shot that Vialli missed after Paul Caligiuri was called for taking down Nicola Berti in the 32nd minute. A penalty kick, coming as it does from just 12 yards in front, is almost unstoppable when a player such as Vialli is shooting.

But a strange thing happened. After Vialli faked Meola to his left, he kicked left. Almost unbelievably, the ball struck the post.

"Certainly, the failed penalty kick made us a bit jittery," said Italian Coach Azeglio Vicini, who had warned his team to beware of the Americans. "I think the match would have gone differently with the goal."

He meant the Italians would have rolled. Instead, they practically rolled over in emotional disarray. The steady-playing, highly charged Americans capitalized. They played much tougher than they had against Czechoslovakia, repeatedly breaking up plays and bumping the Italians when they had to.

The huge arena was often silent in the second half. The only Italian yelling, it seemed, was Vicini, like a father who had told his children. It's almost unheard of here that the crowd cannot be heard.

Meola helped drive the crowd and players to distraction.

"In the beginning, we let them play a little to create some space for us," said team captain Giuseppe Bergomi. "Then we tried to press them, but their goalkeeper with his long kicks sometimes created problems for us.

"I don't think the United States looks like a team of amateurs. It was a very good free kick by No. 16 {Murray}. They nearly went as far as drawing {tying} in the end."

Meola made some spectacular saves. The best came in the first half. Andrea Carnevale pushed the ball up the left side to Paolo Maldini, who put a long pass to the front of the net right onto Roberto Donadoni's head. The bullet-like header was on goal but, brilliantly, Meola grabbed it and held it like a valued prize.

The only satisfaction for Italy was that with the victory it clinched a place in the second round. The Americans' chances of advancing still existed, but barely.

"They are remote," Gansler said. "A lot of colossal things would have to happen for us to get there."

Sixteen of the 24 finalists make it to single-elimination play after the three-game round-robin series conclude. The first two finishers in the six four-team brackets advance. That leaves only four wild-card places among third place teams.

Those precious four places are decided on number of points (two for a win, one for a tie); then, if necessary, goal differential; then number of goals scored. Having lost by 5-1 and 1-0, the Americans are minus-five in goal differential. They would have to blow Austria almost out of the country and have other third-place teams fail miserably.

But the U.S. team is content tonight that it redeemed itself. "What Czechoslovakia did," Gansler said, "was that they raised their game in intensity 30 percent from what I saw on film or when I scouted them."

Despite their collapse in Florence, the Americans arrived tonight, Gansler said, "in an optimistic frame of mind."

"I feel good for my team. Good players learn quickly. My young team learned its lessons well and quick."

Gansler also went to "an injection of fresh blood." Defenseman John Doyle of Fremont, Calif., got his chance and several times snuffed trouble. On one high centering pass, Doyle leaped and headed the ball away, something the U.S. didn't do much of against Czechoslovakia.

The 5-foot-8 Jimmy Banks, from Milwaukee, was inserted into the lineup for speed and aggressiveness on defense, which he delivered. Drifting back from midfield, newcomer Marcelo Balboa also helped tighten the defense. "They blocked the way," Bergomi said. "It was difficult for us to do anything."

So early in the second half, just as he did in Italy's 1-0 victory last Saturday against Austria, Vicini pulled a disconsolate Carnevale and put in the sprinter from Sicily, Salvatore Schillaci. Against Austria, it took Schillaci 10 minutes to score. Everyone watched him, anticipating a repeat performance. But the U.S. players watched him too.

Near the finish, Gansler sent in fresh men. John Stollmeyer of Annandale, Va., a starter against Czechoslovakia, came on for Banks. Californian Chis Sullivan replaced Murray. The Americans pressed, although they didn't threaten. Italy backed off, which didn't set well among Italian fans and press.

Roberto Baggio was nowhere to be seen. He's the high-scoring midfielder who was sold by Fiorentina to Juventus for a record $13 million. Vicini stubbornly kept him out, fiddling as Rome almost burned.

"We gain a little bit of credibility," Gansler said. "I don't believe in the 'Big Bang' theory; United States soccer is an evolutionary process. We took a positive step tonight."

United States 0 0 0 Italy 1 0 1 FIRST HALF Scoring: 1, Italy, Giuseppe Giannini 1 (Donadoni), 11th minute.

SECOND HALF Scoring: None.Yellow Cards: Banks, U.S., 62nd minute; Ferri, Italy, 68th minute.Red Cards: None.

Referee: Mendez (Mexico). Linesmen: Berny Morera Ulloa (Costa Rica); Daniel Juan Cardellino (Uruguay).

A: 73,423.