- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

HAMBURG, Germany — The day after getting crushed by the Czech Republic, Team USA licked its wounds, analyzed the game tape and prepared for the daunting challenge of earning a better result against Italy on Saturday.

Coach Bruce Arena now faces the toughest job of his illustrious career as he attempts to keep his team alive at the World Cup.

“It’s right up there, if not my greatest challenge,” Arena said at the team’s heavily guarded headquarters at the Park Hyatt in Hamburg.

Arena believes his players can fight back, but in Group E, which has been called the “Group of Death” by some, it will be tough to earn points in games against Italy and Ghana.

“It can be done. We have a group of players who are realistic about Saturday’s game …,” Arena said. “There are still six points out there.”

Arena promised changes for Saturday’s game, but he wouldn’t discuss the specifics. It’s likely that forward Eddie Johnson, who gave the United States a lift when he came on against the Czechs, and midfielder John O’Brien may see more minutes against Italy, which beat Ghana 2-0.

Arena complimented central defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Eddie Pope on doing a decent job against 6-foot-7 Jan Koller, except for the goal he scored in the fifth minute.

“Defensively we played quite well,” Arena said. “We gave Koller all he could handle, but he got a goal.”

Although he said the game wasn’t as bad as the score indicated, Arena did say it the worst performance he’d seen from his players in a long time.

The U.S. team won very few matchups on the field. Speedy attacking players Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were almost invisible against the Czechs. The team’s lone striker, Brian McBride, found himself coming back to the ball instead of getting the needed crosses.

“I was disappointed with the confidence of some of the players on the field,” Arena said. “We reacted too much to situations instead of anticipating them.”

Arena praised captain Claudio Reyna and midfielder Bobby Convey, plus the team’s defending on set-pieces, but not much else.

Convey, a former D.C. United standout, likely will keep his starting role on the left flank even though he took some of the blame for losing the ball on the Czechs’ first goal.

“He will be a tough guy to take off the field,” Arena said.

Arena emphasized the magnitude of giving up the early goal against the Czechs, but was willing to take the blame for the loss.

“I wasn’t angry. I was disappointed,” Arena said. “You look back and wonder what you could have done.”

It appears the Czechs, who had suffered numerous injuries coming into the finals, surprised the U.S. coaching staff — which had scouted them intensely — with their speed and Pavel Nedved’s passing ability on second balls.

While the U.S. team may be the fifth-best team in the world according to FIFA’s dubious rankings, it’s clear they lack players the ilk of Nedved and Tomas Rosicky.

The United States now faces an uphill battle to advance from the opening round. A 1-0 loss to the Czechs may have been easier to digest, but giving up three goals hurts if the team manages to get tied on points in the group because goal-differential is a tiebreaker. But the challenge is not impossible. A tie with Italy and win a over Ghana could make the difference.

“We are not going with the 3-0 loss plan,” Arena said. “We threw that game plan out. There will be a lot of tactical changes.”

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