Bruce Arena remembers wandering into his grandfather's deli in Brooklyn as a child and seeing a poster of the Italian national soccer team, the players adorned in their deep blue jerseys, the "Azzurri," they were called.
It was part of Arena's introduction to soccer or, as the Italians know it, calcio. Many years later, the U.S. coach will have the opportunity to reflect on his heritage inside a bustling stadium during the sport's premier event when his emerging squad plays three-time champion Italy in the World Cup.
"That's always nice in terms of your heritage; I don't know how nice it is playing them on the field," he said with a grin Friday night after the Americans were placed in Italy's first-round group at next summer's tournament in Germany.
The United States will undoubtedly have a difficult time replicating its quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup. Besides Italy, the Americans must face the Czech Republic, ranked second in the world behind Brazil by FIFA, the sport's governing body.
Their final Group E match will be against Ghana, a World Cup newcomer that boasts players with European professional experience.
Other than Group C -- which comprises world powers Argentina and the Netherlands, as well as a dangerous Serbia and Montenegro squad and perhaps the best team in Africa, Ivory Coast -- the U.S. group is arguably the most difficult of the eight clusters.
Host Germany, Brazil, France and Spain shouldn't have much trouble in their respective groups, and two other top seeds -- Mexico and England -- were spared a rough path to the second round.
The top two teams in each group will advance, which, for the Americans, would likely mean a date with the Brazilians.
"We have our hands full," said Arena, whose family roots are in Naples and Sicily. "We'll decide it on the field, how difficult that group is. We know they're all going to be difficult games -- they always are, they always will be."
Although their opener is against the Czechs on June 12 in Gelsenkirchen, the most highly anticipated match is five days later against Italy in Kaiserslautern. The teams last met in a World Cup in 1990, when the Americans returned to the tournament after a 40-year absence with a largely inexperienced roster.
The result was a 1-0 Italy victory at Rome's Olympic Stadium, but the difference between the sides was glaring.
This time, with many of its players now competing in Europe and a U.S. league helping the sport's development, the United States finds itself on a comparable level.
"It's a tricky group," Italy Coach Marcello Lippi said.
The Czechs, who needed a special playoff to qualify for the World Cup, might be the best team in the group and will be heavily favored to join Italy in the next round.
"I don't know anything about the USA team," the Czech's jolly coach, Karel Bruckner, said with a chuckle. He then began peppering reporters about the Americans and how they finished in their regional qualifying tournament -- ahead of Mexico.
Bruckner did recall coaching the Czech Olympic team against the United States during a 2-2 tie at the 2000 Summer Games in Australia, but most of the players were age 23 and under.
The most mysterious team in the group is Ghana, which ended decades of underachievement by earning one of five African bids. Michael Essien, who was signed by English Premiership champion Chelsea last summer, is the Black Stars' most notable player, but there are others who have gone off to Europe.
There also is the question of D.C. United's Freddy Adu, who was born in Ghana and remains eligible to play for his native country. Adu has stated repeatedly, however, that he is committed to representing the United States.
Arena has said several times since October that he plans to invite Adu to U.S. training camp next month. The 16-year-old forward has only an outside chance of making the World Cup roster, but will have a chance to prove himself in practice and friendly matches.
If Adu changed his mind about his affiliation, would Ghana consider him?
"Why not?" team spokesman Ransford Abbey said. "As a Ghanaian, we love him. He's a talented player. If he plays for Ghana, we'd love it. If he doesn't, we would wish him the best of luck."
The United States will face Ghana in its first-round finale, June 22 in Nuremberg. By then, however, the Americans will have needed to win or tie one of their first two matches to remain in contention.
"I have no problems with the draw -- it is what it is," Arena said. "We knew we were going to play some great teams, no matter what happened. I'm not worried about the other teams in our group; I'm worried about our team and getting them ready to play."
The U.S. team has friendlies scheduled against Canada, Norway and Japan early next year in California and will travel to Dortmund -- one of 12 World Cup sites -- to face Germany on March 22. The U.S. team will also play on March 1, probably on the road against a European opponent, as well as three matches in May on the U.S. East Coast.