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- It Seems To Me. . .-

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Arena still doesn't get the respect he deserves.

It Seems To Me . . .

Americans' only hope of advancement is winning two straight.

By Robert Wagman

BERLIN (Thursday, June 15, 2006) -- The United States men have dug themselves a big hole with Monday's 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic and one game into their World Cup quest, their chances of advancing from Group E to the Round of 16 have dimmed considerably.

Anything less than victories in its remaining group matches with Italy and Ghana would just about certainly send the U.S. home. However, even winning the two remaining contests and finishing 2-1 does not assure placing in the top two and thus advancement. The Americans' minus-three goal differential, the first tiebreaker for teams that wind up tied in the standings, looms as a major obstacle to U.S. hopes of moving on from Group E

Before the U.S. faces Italy Saturday, the Czech Republic takes on Ghana. Should the Americans and Czechs win, followed by the U.S beating Ghana and Italy defeating the Czechs next Thursday, the U.S., Italy and the Czech Republic would all be 2-1 with six points with the two teams with the best goal differential advancing. Currently, the Czechs are plus-3, six better than the U.S., the Italians plus-2, five better.

Should the Czech Republic draw with Ghana Saturday with the U.S. also tying with Italy, then if the Americans beat Ghana next Thursday, the U.S. would be tied for second with the loser of Thursday's Czech-Italy match, but the U.S. probably would be the one going home because of inferior goal difference. If the Czechs and Italians tied, both would go though at 1-0-2 with five points, while the U.S. would finish third at 1-1-1 with four points.

One scenario exists where the U.S would advance after tying Italy without tiebreakers entering the equation -- if Ghana defeats the Czech Republic Saturday. Then, if the U.S. defeated Ghana next Thursday and Italy downed the Czechs, the Americans would be in second place alone.

Should Italy and the Czech Republic meet with the Group E title on the line, popular wisdom would have both sides trying hard to win, given the loser and second-place finisher would likely have to play five-time and defending World Cup champion Brazil (should it win Group F, as expected) in the second round.

"You can't worry about who you're playing in the Round of 16," U.S. manager Bruce Arena said. "You have to get on with the business of winning games."

Still, the U.S. must approach as a must-win situation its meeting with Italy, which is considered to be a nation with great talent and the best shot of unseating Brazil. And the Americans want badly to avoid a loss which would end their hopes of advancement and render the Ghana match meaningless, as far as advancement is concerned.

"I think everybody looks at Brazil as the class of this tournament and the class of football around the world, but I still kind of like Italy," said Arena, admitting to Italian heritage. "I followed (Italy) for years, so this is a nice challenge for me and the players. . . It will be a fun day.

"They have among the best tandems of strikers in the World Cup."

Arena has confirmed he will alter his starting lineup, without discussing details. "We'll make some changes," Arena said "It's obvious we need to make a couple of changes. What they are we don't know yet."

He knows the Americans must get off to a better start after falling behind the Czechs in the fifth minute and he hopes the absence of aggressiveness can be reversed, particularly on attack.

"Actually, I thought we played pretty well defensively, especially our center backs, in the first 45 minutes on Monday," he said. "Look at the tape. In the first half, the Czechs had possession within 30 yards of our goal only four times, but (Jan) Koller scored and (Tomas) Rosicky scores from 30 yards. We marked Koller well, but he comes away with a goal. I think it wasn't as bad as the score-line tells you. We weren't very good on the attacking end. Our set pieces weren't very good.

"Technically, I think it was the worst our team has played. We didn't pass well. We didn't serve crosses well, so it all adds up. You've got to be a little sharper to give yourself a chance and we didn't do that."

Arena singled out midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, and goalkeeper Kasey Keller for criticism after Monday's setback. Keller is sure to be in goal and Donovan will be in the midfield, though probably further back than resembling a withdrawn forward. Beasley quite possibly will not be as fortunate and could wind up on the bench.

Beasley expressed confusion over his role both before and after the match, but Arena insisted there was no problem between he and the midfielder. "DaMarcus hasn't been a problem with anything," Arena said. "There's no issues with DaMarcus. There haven't been any problems with DaMarcus with anything. I hate to tell you that. It doesn't sound as exciting as you want it to be, but there's no problems with DaMarcus. Probably remarks from me and DaMarcus probably shouldn't have been stated. For whatever reason, the final product doesn't look like it really is."

A pair of players who came in for the second half against the Czech Republic and performed well - striker Eddie Johnson and midfielder John O'Brien -- appear to be the top candidates for the starting lineup.

The back-line of Eddie Lewis, Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Pope and Steve Cherundolo will likely remain unchanged, now that X-rays of Pope's injured wrist proved negative. Neither played particularly badly, but left midfielder Bobby Convey and\or defensive mid Pablo Mastroeni might join Beasley as the odd men out. If Arena is looking for aggressiveness, Arena might turn to right midfielder Clint Dempsey.

Arena's biggest challenge might be to light a fire under Donovan, who now has gone 16 games with the U.S. men without scoring a goal. His play has been inconsistent, dominating the action one moment and then disappearing for a long stretch.

"It's never easy coming off a loss," Arena said. "We experienced one in (the) 2002 (World Cup), losing to Poland (to close the group phase) and then having to regroup and playing Mexico (winning 2-0 in the second round). So, it can be done. We have a group of players who are resilient who I think will respond well and play a good game on Saturday."

As talented as Italy is, it looked quite mortal against Ghana in its 2-0 triumph Monday. The Americans hope that trend continues while they reverse their fortunes and play the game of their lives. If not, their World Cup pursuit will come to an early end.

Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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