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June 17, 2006
Sports of The Times

One Nation, Underwhelming

Kaiserslautern, Germany

THE other day, a few Italian players were asked to identify the members of the American soccer team but could not get very far past Claudio Reyna, the captain, who has been playing in Europe for a decade.

This response may indicate more nonchalance toward the questioner than toward the American players, but, nevertheless, nonchalance is the best hope the Americans have in their World Cup match here tonight.

After their stinker of a loss against the Czech Republic last Monday, the Yanks need a victory — a tie may not do much for their hopes of advancing — and they also need to get over the ruffled feathers on the squad.

Reyna insisted yesterday that the players had bounced back from the loss, and presumably from the scalding criticism by Manager Bruce Arena. "The younger players had to know you don't have easy games in the World Cup," Reyna said.The Americans will not have an advantage at any position against Italy. They don't have an edge in experience, size, speed or skill. Not that they are counting on it, but Italy just could have a bad game in the first round. While the ragazzi — the boys — are adjusting their figurative designer sunglasses and making sure the sleeves of their expensive sweaters are draped just so over their manly shoulders, the occasional outsider just might run circles around them.

In 1982, the Italians barely got out of the first round, but then they picked up speed and won the World Cup. The Americans need to be overlooked as some kind of third-world soccer nonentity, but it is hard when the team name is United States of America.

But the Italians could tend to overlook them since none of the Americans play in Serie A, and therefore their names have never been printed in the copious charts and diagrams and articles in the pink pages of Gazzetta dello Sport, the daily Italian sports newspaper. Reyna, who has played in Germany, Scotland and now England, is a familiar name. So is Kasey Keller, the goalkeeper who has been in England, Spain and Germany for a decade.

Keller would not be rated ahead of Gianluigi Buffon, the Italians' goalkeeper from Juventus, but he is a regular in the tough German Bundesliga. Keller is also in the position of being able to decide a World Cup match, as a hot or cold goalkeeper can be. Keller is far too centered to need motivation, but he has some all the same: As good as he has been in qualifying rounds and for his clubs in Europe, Keller has played only three World Cup matches in his long career — losses to Germany and Iran in 1998 and the drubbing by the Czechs on Monday.

"He's had a great career," Arena said yesterday. "He's always been there for the U.S. team. There are so many superlatives you can say about him."

Arena did not have many superlatives for Keller's poor clearance just before the first Czech goal on Monday. But now the American hopes are that Keller can stop anything Italy sends at the goal. The two men have patched up their stiffness that followed Arena's decision not to use Keller in the 2002 World Cup. Keller is not one of those players who need to play in a rage, but he and his teammates will have to get over Arena's blast at most of them for their own apparent nonchalance against the Czechs.

Arena has been criticized by soccer-wise fans back in the States (and there are a lot of them) for his tactics, for leaving home certain players (Taylor Twellman is a name you hear), for messing up players like Eddie Lewis and DaMarcus Beasley by moving them to unfamiliar positions and also for criticizing his players so publicly.

The change that would seem to make sense would be to start Eddie Johnson up front, giving the Americans more athleticism and energy in their attack. Arena praised the Italians as having no known weaknesses. And Reyna did not seem upset that his teammates were not known by the Italians.

"That's fine," he said. "This is a great chance for our players. Hopefully, they will know us after the game."

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