THE PROPER WORLD CUP KICKOFF
EXTRA TIME
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Now that the World Cup draw has settled in, plans must be made to stage another tourney opening upset because that is the only path to a knockout bracket with Brazil waaaay on the other side.

Don't get me wrong… I would absolutely relish the opportunity for our boys to meet up with the world champions in Germany – just better in the final than in the round of 16.

To avoid the Samba Kings, Bruce Arena is probably going to need to steer his crew to the top of Group E. More to the point, he must engineer a victory over the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen on June 12th.

We all remember how John O'Brien shot the 'Nats out of a cannon in 2002. Three minutes is what it took for the US Men's National Team to announce their intentions, and it cost an enthralling 90 and change to knock off group favorites Portugal.

The tricky part is that, this time, we have two legitimate title contenders to deal with, making a fast start twice as important. At full strength, both the Czechs and Italy have the parts necessary to raise the trophy in Berlin.

Make no mistake about it: any Lake Placid-esque championship scenario the Americans (or their fans) might wish to entertain must begin with all of the first three available points.

Now, I don't want to be confused with those who consider our draw a doom sentence. We have a tall assignment, but not one that upsets me terribly. I think the rocky path is good for growth. It can give the team a clearer focus for the next six months, a unified ambition, a studied goal: win game one.

I firmly believe the US can pop out of the mixed nuts can on the Czechs, and then advance by finding a way to outwork Ghana for another win. Whether six points will be good enough to take the group is anybody's guess, but I feel it is our best chance.

As you may gather, I'm not counting on any points against Italy because simply outplaying them is no assurance of a result. Of course, if you'd ask US defender Cory Gibbs, he'd probably tell you nobody in Group E can count on points off any of the other three teams.

"I was shocked (watching the draw) because I realized that we had the most competitive of all groups," the Feyenoord defender recently told YA. My favorite Rotterdammer knows what he's talking about.

The US is an emerging world soccer power, but we haven't arrived at the point where we can finish second in this round robin playing catch up. So… how do we beat the Czechs?

Much has been made of the threat offered by two players who might not even make the short trip: Borussia Dortmund lighthouse Jan Koller and Juventus magician Pavel Nedvěd.

Target mammoth Koller can be a terror with surprisingly nimble footwork and his famous array of knockdowns, flicks and bullet headers.

However, he is over 30 and a heavy doubt to recover from a major knee injury in time. If he is in attendance, some sugar & spice defending from Gibbs and Oguchi Onyewu could theoretically keep him in check.

Nedvěd is more likely to play in Germany, but could decide against it after a long club season, especially if he has any injuries.

Clearly, Steve Cherundolo is the man on the spot here; he has to keep track of the playmaker and still find time to take part in attack construction.

Despite the problems these two veterans can cause, Gibbs knows that there are other worries in white-and-red. "Koller and Nedvěd are going to be tough opponents, but I can't just focus on just those players," he insisted.

It's a good point; the Czechs often hurt you on the scoreboard with late arriving snipers like Karel Poborský and Tomáš Rosický or with 'right place at the right time' types like Milan Baroš and Vladimer Šmicer.

Be that as it may, I find that the Czech trio we need to spend a little more time focusing on works at the other end of the field. Before the US can think about testing Chelsea keeper Petr Cech, they will have to navigate a course through Tomas Galásek, Zdenek Grygera and Tomáš Ujfalusi.

The wily veteran Galásek has helped Ajax turn things around from defensive midfield with his cool positioning, long range shooting and granola crunchy tackles. Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna can try to find situations where they outnumber him on fly.

Amsterdam ArenA teammate Grygera is playing the most assured soccer of his life, although it is unclear whether he plays in the middle or wide right; with the aging competition he has at center back, my guess is he winds up there.

Beasley should be encouraged to sneak behind him diagonally at least twice, not that it shall be easy. In addition, the surprisingly silky Grygera might require a double team on corner kicks and Reyna should take notice that he likes to pick spots to dart forward when in central defense.

Ujfalusi, ahhhh Ujfalusi. Brian McBride, meet elbow. And here's his pleasant friend, knee to the kidney. Oh… and don't bring your wallet. If any Americans want to take flight in the Czech 18-yard air space, they will need to show him some ID.

The picture above? That particular play ended with Van Nistelrooy on the ground holding his calf and Ujfalusi going into the book. Eddie Lewis crosses must both be dangerous AND keep the punishment doled out on his forwards to a minimum.

I know it sounds ugly at the moment, but let's all remember the dirty little secret. None of these guys have ever played at a World Cup.

With all of their experience and pedigree, not one of them has ever had that belly situation when the equipment manager screams 'five minutes!'. Even more reason to try and hit them quick, to repeat the Suwon magic.

And I don't just want us to start with a first game bang; the team should not only wish to work with an early advantage in the table, but in each and every game until they come home.

Play with the lead. Jump on them early, before they even know what hit them. Get on the board, force them to open up, wait for the right moment to have speed demons Beasley, Donovan and Ed Johnson apply the dagger.

In addition to O'Brien's quick icebreaker in the Orient, Brian McBride gave Mexico all of eight minutes to score first in the 2002 quarterfinal. Conversely, playing catch up paid no dividends against Poland or Germany.

I figure we have four keys to victory against the Czech Republic: 1) don't let weak side flank attackers slip into the box unattended, 2) force Rosický to veer his buzzing runs away from the top of the area (Pablo Mastreoni, stay in front of him and on your feet!), 3) change the tempo like jazzmen to get them playing our tune, and 4) for the sake of all that is good and true, bury that first chance!

We aren't sure about the status of their two most notable players, but six months is plenty of time to implement contingencies and wrinkles. Gibbs is absolutely right in thinking that we should worry over more than Koller and Nedvěd.

The Battle Spider is a man with a plan, and that is why he should be organizing the backline when the US open World Cup 2006 Group E play against Euro2004 bronze medalists the Czech Republic.

"The Czech Republic as a team work hard on pressuring the ball," summarized Gibbs. "So we have to be ready to play fast and be focused on playing good defense and attacking at the right times and keeping a good team shape and not being spread out on the field."

Yeah… what he said.
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