- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2006

HANOVER, Germany — Bruce Arena is not used to failure, but it’s looking him straight in the eye if the U.S. team can’t tie or defeat Italy in Kaiserslautern today.

A 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic has put the Americans in a precarious, if not impossible, position. A failure to earn even a tie with Italy probably will result in the team flying home from Germany after its game against Ghana on Thursday.

After winning five NCAA titles with Virginia and two MLS crowns with D.C. United, and then taking the U.S. team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, it seemed Arena could do no wrong.

Now he’s being asked if he had a Plan B against the Czechs in the event the Americans conceded an early goal.

Arena’s plan today is simple — get a point. It’s a giant task, but against a talented yet aging Italian back line the one edge the Americans have is speed. Enter Eddie Johnson, the team’s fast, young forward who was one of the bright spots when he came off the bench against the Czech Republic.

“Speed kills in games, and Eddie proved it when he came on,” U.S. midfielder Bobby Convey said.

Arena told Johnson to “be aggressive … and get an early goal” against the Czechs. That’s likely to be his same message to the Palm Coast, Fla., native today.

But asking the 22-year-old Johnson — who has yet to play 20 games for the Americans and was injured for six months last year — to do damage against the experienced Italians is a tall order. Arena, though, has few options.

Johnson can be gutsy, nasty and fast. The rookie is untamed, bubbling to go, with a naivete and lack of fear that just might give the hard-nosed veteran Italian defenders some unexpected trouble.

“It’s like do-or-die,” said Johnson, who plays for the Kansas City Wizards in Major League Soccer. “We are going to make tackles … when the ref’s not looking, do what we can do. I don’t want to go home early.”

The U.S. team is 0-7-0 against European teams in World Cup play in Europe.

Johnson is capable of holding a ball with his back to the goal and turning on a shot, or playing a pass off to Brian McBride. Meanwhile, if speedy Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley can find their form, there may be hope against the three-time world champions.

And don’t count Arena out. The longest-serving coach on any team at these finals is shrewd and not to be underestimated. The question is: Was there a page in Arena’s playbook for the U.S. team’s current dilemma, or is it back home on his desk in Fairfax County?

Notes — There will be plenty of American support in the 45,000-seater Kaiserslautern World Cup Stadium. Dubbed K-Town by Americans, the city is home to the Ramstein Air Base, the largest American military base outside the United States, housing 50,000 American troops.

“We will feel like we will be at home,” Johnson said.

The United States beat Poland 1-0 in a warm-up game at the stadium on a snowy night in March before 13,395.

“The more American flags you see — five-to-10 thousand — it gets you hyped,” said Convey, whose aunt and uncle are staying on the American base. …

When Johnson was sidelined with a toe injury last year after a record breaking stretch in 2004-2005 in which he scored eight goals in just nine games for the national team, he found himself deep in the doldrums. So he took up golf.

“Golf is a tough sport,” Johnson said. “You have to have a lot of concentration and there’s a lot of time to think about your life.”

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