- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

It seemed like an ideal day for Bethesda resident Doug Klapec. He would rehab a lingering Achilles injury (from playing soccer, no less) in the morning, then make the short drive to local establishment Union Jack’s, eschewing a trip to his office in Beltsville for a spot at the bar to watch the United States open World Cup play against the Czech Republic.

Like several other fans at Union Jack’s and other area establishments, Klapec hoped to see the beginning of an extended American run. Instead, the Americans stumbled to a 3-0 loss, a crushing blow to partisans who had planned for this day months in advance even though they couldn’t make it across the Atlantic for the game.

“A 2-1 loss wouldn’t have been so bad,” Klapec said. “It’s brutal. They didn’t play with any inspiration at all. If they’d have made some mistakes and got beat, that’s [different]. But they didn’t have anything pressing forward.”

It was a surprising cap to a day that began with some hope of an upset of the world’s second-ranked team. One early arrival was Stephen Stern, a research assistant who put in for the day off — as well as next Thursday, when the United States meets Ghana — when the schedule was announced. He shrugged off missing work for a day and noted his boss — another soccer fan — had a “meeting” conveniently set for around noon.

Stern wasn’t quite as lucky as a few of his friends, who won a lottery to purchase tickets and were in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, yesterday, but settled for quickly claiming a table with a clear view of a television for another group of friends. From there, he expressed the same optimism many fans shared about the Americans’ chances of reaching the next round.

“Despite the draw, I think we have a very good shot,” Stern said. “We have a veteran team and got some of the top players and what I think is the best goaltender in the world. One point today will still be a very good thing.”

It soon appeared securing even a point would be difficult. Towering Czech forward Jan Koller scored in the fifth minute, diffusing much of the anticipation among the stateside fans, some of whom wore U.S. jerseys and had filled up the restaurant by game time.

Hope briefly resurfaced in the 29th minute when Claudio Reyna’s booming 25-yard shot appeared to have a chance, but it caromed harmlessly off the inside post to the crowd’s disappointment and keeper Petr Cech’s relief.

“That goalkeeper is really good,” Klapec muttered. “If they can beat him, they’ve got to score.”

Instead, the Czechs scored again on Tomas Rosicky’s 25-yard blast in the 36th minute. Andy Fenwick of the District, who organized a group of his old high school friends to come out, admitted at halftime it would be tough for the Americans to climb back into it but suggested the insertion of speedy forward Eddie Johnson could make a difference.

It certainly didn’t seem like a bad idea, especially since Fenwick had displayed some prescience earlier in the match.

“He was telling me what a threat the 6-7 bald guy [Koller] was, and he comes out and scores a goal right off the bat,” said John Rayburn, one of Fenwick’s friends and another D.C. native. “It was surprising. It seemed like they were playing really slowly. Maybe they’re just working out the kinks.”

Johnson barely missed on the Americans’ two best scoring chances of the second half. By the time Rosicky scored again in the 76th minute, few patrons bothered to groan in frustration.

It didn’t mean it didn’t exist.

“Disappointing, in a word,” said Jeff Bollen of Rockville, who arrived at halftime for his lunch break. “They just need to refocus. I don’t think this is telling you they can’t win the other two games, but they definitely need to check themselves and figure out what was wrong in their game plan.”

Union Jack’s quickly emptied when the match ended. Managing partner Tommy King, clad in an Irish World Cup jersey, was glad many fans stayed at his less-than-year-old establishment until the end, although a regular grumbled “You didn’t miss anything” when King mentioned he had not watched much of the game.

Those who remained 10 minutes after the match’s conclusion digested the ramifications of the loss. The United States probably needs two victories to advance since goal differential breaks the tie of any teams knotted in group play, making the outcome even more demoralizing.

“It was surprising,” Fenwick said. “I expected at worst a 2-1 game or a one-goal game, but it’s disappointing. We’ve dug ourselves into a hole that we probably are not going to be able to get out of.”

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