- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2006

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — After earning a 1-1 draw with three-time world champion Italy yesterday, the United States remains in contention at the World Cup and heads into its game with Ghana on Thursday searching for a win to advance to the final 16.

It won’t be easy. Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and forward Eddie Pope are suspended for the Ghana game after both earned red cards.

Remarkably, before 46,000 at the sold-out Fritz-Walter Stadium, the U.S. team held the favored Italians scoreless while playing a man down for the last 44 minutes. The game featured bruising tackles, a bizarre own-goal, controversial calls and three red cards.

“We redeemed ourselves from day one and we are where we want to be,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “Two red cards in five minutes was very harsh. I respect the way the team dealt with it. … I’m not sure I’ve coached a game where I have had two players red-carded in my life.”

After Ghana stunned the Czech Republic 2-0 earlier yesterday, Group E is now wide open. Italy leads with four points, Ghana and the Czech Republic each have three and Team USA has one. The U.S. team must beat Ghana and hope Italy beats the Czechs.

This certainly was a different U.S. team from one that lost to the Czechs 3-0. Midfielder Bobby Convey was running at the Italian defense and firing shots and Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna were holding their own in the midfield. Once again, Donovan played in the midfield with Brian McBride as the lone striker.

With tackles flying, things became ugly. Pope received a yellow card for dragging down Alberto Gilardino in the 21st minute. The Italian forward got his payback by opening the scoring in the 22nd minute. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo curled in a delicate free kick from 25 yards and Gilardino, seemingly unmarked, ran between Reyna and Pope for a free header which he whipped past U.S. goalie Kasey Keller.

It looked ominous for the U.S. team because the Italians are known for locking up 1-0 games. But the U.S. suddenly received two breaks.

Five minutes after his team scored, Italian defender Cristian Zaccardo, attempting to clear Convey’s floating free-kick, sliced the ball into his own net, making it 1-1. Next, midfielder Daniele De Rossi bloodied McBride with a flying elbow and was immediately given his marching orders by the Uruguayan referee, leaving the Italians to play with 10 players.

The U.S. team then saw plenty of open space and capitalized. Both Reyna and Donovan were running ragged and Clint Dempsey was making good runs on the left. Mastroeni narrowly missed a shot off the bar. But in the next instant, the Colorado Rapids’ star received a red card for a sliding tackle that rammed into Andrea Pirlo’s ankle just before the break. Mastroeni headed to the sideline and the U.S. team had lost the man-advantage.

The second half opened with the United State down to nine men when Pope was sent off for a tackle from behind on Gilardino in the 46th minute. Arena, who was disgusted by what he believed to be a harsh call, was forced to replace the hard-working Convey with defender Jimmy Conrad.

“It was a real wacky game,” Convey said. “We were playing two men down and still getting chances.”

Arena tried to be philosophical about the red cards.

“It’s natural that the powers in the game get a little more respect from the officiating,” Arena said.

The speedy DaMarcus Beasley came on for Dempsey in the 62nd mark and minutes later thought he had the game-winner. But the goal was waved off when the assistant referee flagged McBride for offsides, enraging the U.S. team’s bench.

“We did pretty well even though we were two men down,” Beasley said. “We had plenty of chances, and we didn’t let them score. We hung together as a team to get the point.”

Keller made a brilliant save in the 73rd minute, diving to stop Alessandro Del Piero’s shot.

“Those guys bled for our country and our team,” Keller said of his teammates.

The Italians failed to take advantage of their man advantage and the nine-man U.S. team surprisingly had its share of possession.

Arena’s worn and battered squad weathered the late surging attacks of the Italians, claiming a well-earned point to keep its hope alive. The U.S. players ran over to celebrate with the thousands of cheering U.S. fans. The embarrassed Italians escaped to their locker room in a hurry.

“This was a big one,” Arena said. “It keeps us alive and you never know what happens on the last day.”

Notes — Arena made two changes to his lineup from the Czech debacle for the Italy game, benching defender Eddie Lewis with Carlos Bocanegra as left back, and replacing the outspoken Beasley with Dempsey on the right flank.

To win the group and avoid a possible matchup with Brazil in the second round, Italy must beat the Czechs, who are missing five key starters — two to injury and three to suspension.

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