FLORENCE, JUNE 18 -- So it's come to this, in all likelihood -- but not absolutely positively -- the Americans' last game in the 1990 World Cup finals. Realistically, they'll be playing for pride rather than the second round when they face Austria Tuesday night (3 p.m. EDT) in the Comunale Stadium.
But they could advance if the cosmos realigns itself.
Sixteen teams of the 24 that opened the World Cup finals June 8 will advance. The first two teams from the six four-team groups advance automatically. That leaves four wild-card places to be decided among third-place teams.
The Americans -- and this is only part of it -- would have to wallop Austria by at least three goals. A victory would give them their first two points. But a one-sided victory is necessary even to have a chance to advance.
At the moment, third-place teams in every other group already are ensured two points. The first procedure for breaking ties among third-place teams is goal differential. The Americans need a landslide victory to offset their 5-1 opening-game loss to Czechoslovakia. What's more, they'd still need help; third-place teams in other groups would have to be beaten pretty badly to drop their goal differential below the Americans'.
All things considered, the American players and their fans can feel proud that the U.S. team is still alive, at least mathematically, and kicking going into its third and final first-round game. This is, after all, America's first World Cup finals appearance in 40 years.
The players are not disappointed. Looking back, they may regret the Czechoslovakia game. But they've been elevated emotionally and gained self-esteem and the respect of other countries by their showing against Italy, a 1-0 loss. If they have to head home early, they want to make it tough for Austria and leave behind a second fine performance they can cherish and that others may remember them by.
"We gave a weak imitation of ourselves against Czechoslovakia," said Bob Gansler, the American coach who's received criticism for stressing defense at the expense of offense, but who brought the team to a peak in last week's Italy game.
Gansler, a hard-edged man who grew up in Europe and lives in Milwaukee, takes strong exception to those who suggest that Italy played at "half pace" against the United States because of overconfidence.
"Baloney," he said. "We forced them to play a slow game. We gave them certain passes but denied them others. We needed to make them walk. We took some things away from them."
Against Austria, the United States will meet a team "somewhere in talent between the Czechoslovaks and the Italians," according to Gansler. Yet Austria, which came into the finals playing well, has nothing to show for its first two games except 1-0 losses to Italy and Czechoslovakia. The Austrians will bring frustration to Tuesday night's game; the Americans, more relaxed and confident after their Rome performance, want good back-to-back games and will see what happens.
Gansler is most concerned with Anton Polster, 26, who scores roughly half Austria's goals. He's played in Vienna, later in Turin, Italy, and currently in Seville, Spain. He scored a hat trick against East Germany last November in a game Austria had to win to get here.
Polster will be guarded by John Doyle, a defender from Fremont, Calif., who started against Italy. He and Washington-born Desmond Armstrong played "magnificently" against Italy, Gansler said. Armstrong will be assigned another tough forward, Gerhard Rodax.
One can almost feel the frustration emanating from Austria's coach, Josef Hickersberger. "We made the same mistakes against Czechoslovakia as we made in the first match against Italy," he said. "Czechoslovakia deserved its win. What we have shown up to now does not correspond to our standards."
After the loss to Czechoslovakia, Austrian defender Anton Pfeffer, who made a wrong backward pass leading to the goal, berated himself mercilessly. "It's my fault," he said in anguish. "It was an unforgivable error."
Polster, the captain, offered a critical assessment of his team.
"We have been wrong in every sense," he said. "We don't play an active style of football and the results have been horrible, a real disappointment."
One of Gansler's concerns is making sure that the American players' euphoria can be set aside long enough to get a victory or tie against Austria. "With a young squad," Gansler said, "you're going to have peaks and valleys. We have to gain more consistency."
But looking back over months of qualifying matches, he added firmly, "We have shown time and time again that we can prevail."
The top two teams in each group and the four third-place teams with the most points advance to the second round.
If teams have the same number of points, the first tiebreaker is goal differential. If there's still a tie, the team with the most goals scored in the first round advances. For example, Argentina and Romania have the same number of points (3) and the same goal differential (+1), but Romania outscored Argentina, 4 goals to 3, to claim second place. Third-place Argentina earned enough points to gain a wild-card spot.
If another tiebreaker is needed, FIFA will use a lottery system to determine which teams advance.