Bruce Arena and his USMNT had a difficult time in Germany in 2006. (www.AndyMead/YCJPhoto)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

After such an encouraging finish at the 2002 World Cup in Korea, the U.S. was ready to show the world that it was ready to make another giant step.

Outside of a draw against a team that would become world champions, it was three and out for the Americans in Germany in 2006.

For the record, U.S. teams have fared poorly in European World Cups, securing a 0-9-1 mark.

A difficult start

The competition did not start out well for the U.S. men’s national team, which lost to the Czech Republic, 3-0, in its opener in  Gelsenkirchen on June 12.

It was the fifth worst defeat in 23 World Cup matches dating back to 1930.

“I take all the blame,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “You can check all of the boxes. You can blame it all on me. I accept it. The players play a little bit of a role too, but I’m willing to take the big hit on that one.”

Arena faced probably the greatest challenge of his national team coaching career in the team’s next match: Revamp the beleaguered American lineup after its debacle to the Czech Republic on Monday while finding a way to beat tough Italy in the Group E encounter.

A loss would eliminate a U.S. team that had so high hopes to prove that its 2002 showing in Korea was not a fluke.

“It’s obvious we need to make a couple changes,” he said. “What they are, I don’t know at this time.

“We’re not going to go with the 3-0 loss game plan. We threw that page away after the game and we’ll try to come up with a new one.”

Arena felt the sting of the loss would linger.

“The result is not going to go away, that’s for sure,” he said, “so we need a day or two to regroup, lick our wounds a little bit, learn what we can learn from last night’s defeat and move forward, and put it past us. There are still six points out there, and that’s the way you’ve got to look at it.”

A wild draw despite playing a man down

One by one the U.S. players fell to the turf at Fritz-Walter Stadion exhausted, having just played the game of their lives after saving their collective World Cup lives.

The U.S. survived two red cards, including playing a man down for nearly half the match, in an epic 1-1 draw with Italy in Kaiserslautern on June 17, on the fourth anniversary of the Americans’ 2-0 win over Mexico at the 2002 World Cup.

It remains to be seen whether the tie will help boost the Americans into the second round, but they still have a chance.

“One point is a victory for us,” goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. “The guys bled today for our country and our team.”

Entering Thursday’s Group E confrontation with Ghana, stunning 2-0 winners over the Czech Republic earlier in the day, in Nuremberg Thursday. Italy (1-0-1, four points) leads the group, followed by Ghana (1-1-0, three), Czechs (1-1-0, three) and the U.S. (0-1-1, one). It was the first time the U.S. recorded a point in nine World Cup matches played in Europe.

To advance, the U.S. must defeat the Africans and hope Italy beats the Czechs. If the Czechs prevail, then it becomes a goal-differential battle between the Americans and Italians.

“We still have a mountain to climb at least,” said Keller, who made two dramatic late saves on Alessandro Del Piero. “It’s climbable. We haven’t fallen off the cliff.”

In contrast to the U.S.’s lackluster effort in the abysmal 3-0 loss to the Czechs, the U.S. played with much more spirit, heart and intensity.

“I’m extremely proud,” said forward Landon Donovan, one of three players who needed an IV to regain lost fluids after the game. “We did everything we could. We dealt with every guy in blue. The guy in red (the referee) we can’t deal with. That was the problem.”

Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda handed out three red cards and four yellow cards. Those three red cards – only the fourth time in Cup history that occurred during a match – changed the complexion of the contest before a capacity crowd of 46,000.

Defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni fouled Francesco Totti 23 yards out on the right side. Andrea Pirlo sent a free kick toward the near side that Alberto Gilardino, who shook loose from his man, former MetroStars defender Eddie Pope, and headed the ball from five yards past goalkeeper Kasey Keller. As the play commenced, Pope held up his arm, signifying an infraction as Gilardino bolted past him.

Then, within an amazing 59-second span the Italians self-destructed.

After an Italy foul on the right flank of the penalty area, a free kick toward the far end of the box was sent into the area. It traveled over the heads of forward Brian McBride and defender Carlos Bocanegra. However, Italian defender Christian Zaccardo incredibly tapped the ball into his own net from six yards for a 1-1 deadlock.

Barely less than a minute later the Italians pulled off yet another blunder when midfielder Danielle DeRossi was red-carded for elbowing McBride in the head while leaping for a ball at midfield. McBride, who was bleeding under his left eye, was forced from action for several minutes. But he returned with a band-aid under the eye.

“What a great two minutes for U.S. Soccer,” said defender Jimmy Conrad, a second-half sub. “We have an own goal and a red card. If that wasn’t the break we needed, it felt like a nice 2002 moment. . . . It shifted the momentum. But we gave it right back or maybe the referee gave it right back.”

That gave the U.S. a short-lived one-man advantage before the Americans got a red card of their own. Mastroeni saw red from Larrionda for a hard midfield tackle on Pirlo in the 45th minute.

The U.S. had another player ejected in the 47th minute as former MetroStars defender Eddie Pope was slapped with his second yellow card for fouling Gilardino from behind and was red-carded.

“Two red cards in a span of five minutes is pretty harsh,” Arena said.

Instead of folding, the U.S. showed determination and continued to attack in spots while holding off the Italians.

“Our guys did a tremendous job,” Arena said. “A lot of teams would lose their composure and use it as an excuse for not winning.”

In fact, the U.S. came close to scoring the game-winner in the 65th minute when second-half sub DaMarcus Beasley put the ball into the back of the net. The goal was called back due to offside.

“You know you’ve got to roll up your sleeves,” Keller said. “You got to run a bit more to cover when you’re a man down.”

“If we can do that with nine men, we can beat everybody with 11,” Donovan said.

Going, Going, Ghana

The Americans’ destiny was in their hands, or more appropriately, at their feet in Nuremberg, Germany on June 22.

The Italians played their part, recording a 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic in its final Group E game.

But when it was up for the U.S. to hold up its end of the bargain, the Americans just didn’t have enough goals or weapons in their arsenal to make a difference against Ghana, crashing out of the World Cup with a 2-1 loss.

A win would have propelled the USMNT into the second round along with the Italians.

Instead, the squad went home early.

That was a far cry from the 2002 quarterfinal finish.

“We had a mixture of not 11 guys playing, bringing it all together at the same time, including myself,” said Landon Donovan, trying to explain the early exit. “A lot of unluckiness. Hitting the posts. Horrible refereeing. Everything went bad.

“In 2002, everything seemed to go right.”

Now the U.S. will go home, being forced to wait two long years before qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa starts a new.

Ghana will stay in this country a little longer, getting an opportunity to play Brazil in a second-round match Tuesday.

“They will suffer,” Ghana coach Ratomir Dujkovic said with a smile.

The Americans suffered enough before a sellout of 44,000 at Franken-Stadion. They were done in by a feeble attack, a crippling loss of their captain to injury, mistakes and a questionable penalty kick call by the referee – German Markus Merk.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of room for error,” said Arena, who left the field immediately after the match, after giving the game and Merk a dismissive wave of his arm. “So there were too many errors.”

The beginning of the end started in the 22nd minute. Captain Claudio Reyna took a back pass on the left side of the U.S. defensive third. An onrushing Haminu Draman, playing in his first Cup match, striped the ball from Reyna while kicking and injuring the midfielder.

As Reyna fell to the ground in pain, Draman raced in alone on goalkeeper Kasey Keller and fired a low shot to the far-right post for 1-0 Ghana lead.

“When I took my first touch, the guy just closed me really quick,” said Reyna, who was replaced by Ben Olsen in the 40th minute after suffering a sprained MCL. “I couldn’t clear it. I tried to dribble out . . . I couldn’t get him if I wanted to. My knee just buckled.”

Three minutes later the U.S. equalized on Clint Dempsey’s eight-yard shot off a left-wing pass from DaMarcus Beasley.

Beasley, who had been benched as a starter in the Italy draw, stole the ball from Derek Boateng on the left side and sent a low drive across the penalty area that Dempsey immediately rocketed into the net for a 1-1 deadlock. The goal was the first scored by an American – other than an own goal – in the World Cup in 338 minutes, dating back to the U.S.’s 2-0 victory over Mexico in the second-round in 2002.

The U.S., however, found itself facing yet another one-goal deficit entering the locker room at halftime as Merk called a questionable penalty kick on Oguchi Onyewu for taking down Razak Pimpong in the penalty area two minutes into stoppage time. Playmaking midfielder Stephen Appiah converted the ensuing PK into the middle of the goal as Keller dived to his right.

“I am disappointed in the judgment of the referee,” Arena said. “We would have liked to come out at halftime even, with a chance to win the game. That was a big call.

“To be positioned to have to chase the game on that call was pretty kind of remarkable at this level.”

Added Donovan: “I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theory, but in 100 years that’s not a penalty kick. I don’t know what the thinking was.”

The U.S. tried to put pressure on the Ghana goal in the second half but could not get the equalizer. Arena tried to give the offense some life, but second-half subs Eddie Johnson and Bobby Convey just didn’t quite cut it.

Sounds like the Americans’ plight in this World Cup.