Listless US team drilled by Czechs in opening game
A rocket shot off the head of the Czech Republics Jan Koller (right) nearly tears a hole in the net as US keeper Kasey Keller makes a futile attempt to block it. (AP Photo)
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- The US soccer team is no longer accustomed to losing, at least not this way, looking disoriented and unsettled as opposed to simply outplayed.
Most World Cup road maps would indicate that the Czech Republic's 3-0 drubbing of the US yesterday means the Americans won't be able to get anywhere even if they locate their compass. Italy, with a win in the pocket, looms Saturday, and unless there is a terrific mathematical or competitive anomaly in Group E, the US is now obligated to win that match and the one against Ghana next week to advance out of group play.
These US players, touted as the most professional group of Americans ever assembled for this tournament, will have to try to put the subpar outing behind them quickly.
``I think mentally we have to approach [Italy] a little differently, where we're willing to throw the kitchen sink to get a result," said defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni. ``I don't think that's what we did today. At times, I felt like we were just all stranded out there a little bit."
Mastroeni and several teammates agreed that they never recovered from the bullet-like header that towering Czech forward Jan Koller fired in from 6 yards out past goalkeeper Kasey Keller in the fifth minute.
Playmaker Tomas Rosicky found the net twice more, with spectacular long-range shots in the 36th and 76th minutes, and incandescent midfielder Pavel Nedved pulled his usual sorcerer's routine, materializing in different places at just the right moment to take or make the right pass.
``If you go out there and put together a few nice passes early in the game, everyone catches the bug and starts playing well," Mastroeni said. ``And the reverse of that [is true]. If you get a goal scored on you, and no one wants the ball and everyone's kind of shying away from it and not getting it, it's contagious.
``The early goal is kind of like waking up on the wrong side of the bed."
US coach Bruce Arena's day certainly wasn't one for the scrapbook.
``We have to make sure the Czech Republic doesn't beat us twice," he said, smiling through gritted teeth in a postmatch television interview. ``We'll have to get a better performance out of a number of individuals. That's the challenge. It's a great challenge."
The coach apparently doesn't intend to take on that challenge indirectly. Arena almost never disparages players publicly, but he mentioned several of them for blunt criticism in a separate press conference.
He had particularly harsh words for midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, the two young players who keyed the team's run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. Arena also picked at Keller for missing a punt intended for midfielder Bobby Convey, a mishap that started the sequence that led to Koller's goal.
Being soccer players, they kicked back.
Beasley started on the right flank -- not his preferred side -- and looked listless and overmatched for most of the game. He complained about the shift to a three-man back line in the second half, which he said left him smothered by Czech defenders.
``I don't know what [Arena] wants me to do," said Beasley, who doesn't expect to start Saturday, given the coach's comments. ``Maybe next time I'll play striker, then see what happens."
Keller, who had no chance to stop any of the Czech goals, made no excuses about the errant pass.
``It wasn't like I rolled the ball out in front of the goal and let them just volley it in," Keller said. ``Sure, in hindsight you can always do something different. That's the reason they call it hindsight."
Keller said his prevailing emotion was ``serious disappointment" rather than shock at being defeated by the world's second-ranked team.
``We're disappointed with the way we lost," he said. ``We're disappointed that we didn't put them under more pressure, that we didn't really compete for second balls the way we know we can.
``I know we can play better, and I know we will."
The Czech back line was near-impenetrable. US captain Claudio Reyna had his team's only truly dangerous shot when he picked off a loose ball in his own end, passed it off, took it back about 23 yards out, and whacked it at the net in the 28th minute. The ball ricocheted off the inside of the right post and back out, taking with it any nascent US momentum.
Reyna looked crisp and fit despite a recent layoff due to a strained hamstring. He said he was confident Beasley and Donovan would rebound.
``I think we all have the same pressure," Reyna said. ``I don't think it's up to them to do anything more. Last time they were surprises and they're not this time. I said it before the World Cup: They're the ones who are going to be marked very tightly. Whenever they got the ball, [the Czechs] swarmed them.
``We have five days to put it right. We can't wait months or years to get better. We have to get better quickly, and I think we can do that."