- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Coach Bruce Arena may have taken the U.S. team to the No. 5 ranking in the world by winning games in the Americas, but life on this side of the pond always has been tough for the United States.

And so it was yesterday, when the second-ranked Czech Republic soundly outplayed the Americans to win 3-0 in the opening game of Group E before 52,000.

In 11 World Cup games against European teams since 1990, the U.S. team has won just one and tied one. And yesterday’s game basically looked decided after just five minutes, when 6-foot-7 Czech striker Jan Koller, built like an NFL linebacker, did the early damage.

Olney native Oguchi Onyewu had the difficult task of marking the giant, but Koller was able to get away from both Onyewu and fellow defender Eddie Pope on the opening goal.

Defender Eddie Lewis failed to close down defender Zdenek Grygera, who was able to float in an ideal cross. Koller, looking fit after missing seven months with a knee injury, rose above his American markers to head it in from six yards out past helpless U.S. keeper Kasey Keller.

“I don’t think we ever positioned ourselves to win this game, giving up a goal as early as we did,” Arena said. “The Czech Republic took advantage of every play we offered them today in terms of the attacking end of the field and had a pretty good success rate in getting three goals. Obviously, the first goal was big.”

The goal came just after Onyewu was yellow-carded for fouling 2003 European player of the year Pavel Nedved, who tormented the U.S. team all evening with his brilliance.

“I thought Nedved was the player of the match,” Arena said.

The United States finally looked lively in the 28th minute, when captain Claudio Reyna had a 25-yard shot hit the post, but that was the best chance they got.

“We have to look forward now,” Reyna said. “We have Italy [on Saturday], a great opportunity as well to bounce back and find out what we’re made of. Again, we have a lot of guys who, I think, showed a little bit of inexperience today.”

The nightmare got worse for Onyewu, who headed a clearance from Nedved’s cross right into the path of Tomas Rosicky in the 36th minute. The Arsenal striker, with plenty of space, fired a 30-yard shot above the diving Keller into the top corner, which could be the goal of the tournament so far.

The U.S. team caught a break in the 43rd minute when Koller stumbled in the box and was carried off with a pulled hamstring, suffering a major blow to the Czech’s hopes in later games. He was replaced by Vratislav Lokvenc.

“Unfortunately the injury is the only negative from this game, and it is serious,” Czech coach Karl Bruckner said.

After the break, Arena replaced the invisible Pablo Mastroeni with John O’Brien and added an extra striker with Eddie Johnson in for Steve Cherundolo.

If only Reyna had more touches, things might have looked better for the United States.

Arena started former D.C. United player Bobby Convey instead of the oft-injured O’Brien and went with a lone striker in Brian McBride.

The U.S. team was lucky not to be stung again when Rosicky hit the bar in the 68th minute. Ten minutes later, the Czech midfielder hit his mark, blazing through the American defense and slotting the ball past Keller to make it 3-0. Nedved was again involved in the goal, setting the pass up for Rosicky.

Johnson’s arrival certainly livened up the U.S. attack, and he was able to get a decent attempt at goal.

All around it was an awful performance by the Americans. Convey didn’t make a decent cross until the 75th minute, while McBride and Landon Donovan didn’t even take a shot. McBride got little service from his teammates and was replaced by Josh Wolff after the third goal.

The loss is daunting for the Americans, who next face the talented Italians. Only one team in the last two World Cups has advanced out of its group after losing its opening game (Turkey in 2002).

As for the Czechs, they looked like they could go far in the tournament.

Notes — President George Bush had a one-minute phone conversation with the team at their hotel three hours before the game and wished the players well. … The U.S. starting lineup included just three Major League Soccer players. … This is second time the United States has been crushed by the Czechs. The other loss was 5-1 to Czechoslovakia at the 1990 finals in Italy.

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