Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Welcome to my emotional roller coaster. You must be at least this tall to get on the ride. Keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times.

After clumsily spilling the points against the Czech Republic in game one, the US National Team battled their ever-lovin' hearts out to score a famous nine-man draw against Italy.

I had ripped them up pretty good after the opening loss, and suggested that all hope was lost – but they went out and did what I never thought they could, even before the Czech debacle.

To be honest, I was perfectly happy to be wrong (again). I'd love to take credit for performing a little reverse psychology on Bruce Arena's men, but that would be too arrogant (even for me).

They outplayed the favorites, often badly, for 44 minutes and change. Alberto Gilardino took the blueshirts' one chance, diving to nod home a picture perfect Andrea Pirlo free kick serve while our defenders mistakenly raised their arms in search of an offside flag. It was a blip.

Everyone was doing their job, and then some. Pablo Mastroeni drove Francesco Totti to distraction and essentially straight out of the match. World Cup debutant Clint Dempsey acted like he'd been there before, making star wingback Gianluca Zambrotta dizzy with a variety of moves.

Oguchi Onyewu had goal monster Luca Toni looking like Tony Curtis in drag. Carlos Bocanegra added true grit, furthering the idea that he plays much better in a US shirt than he does in a Fulham shirt (maybe they should switch to Red, White & Blue away kits next season).

A deserved man advantage was then negated with ejections to Mastroeni and Eddie Pope on either side of intermission. One or the other would have been fair, but as my folks so often told me growing: life ain't always fair. So why should World Cup be?

Compared to a lyrical first stanza, the second half was all guts and effort. The Italians seemed to think we would lie right down and let them roll clean over us. Someone forgot to tell them that Claudio Reyna was in command.

Captain America took the lead of our ragtag 4-3-1 set, jumping all the right passing lanes, precisely finding barely open men and almost certainly setting foot on every square inch of the Fritz Walter turf to keep the Azzurri at bay.

Landon Donovan took Reyna's lead, running by esteemed defenders, running himself into the ground until he couldn't run another step. I wanted to call ahead to the locker room to buy him the finest bottle of IV fluid available.

Even when Italy carved out something special, such as Pirlo's clever lob to an acrobatic Alessandro Del Piero side kick, Kasey Keller turned them away.

I say the Azzurri got lucky… lucky that Brian McBride was so tired he couldn't get back onside when DaMarcus Beasley beat Gianluigi Buffon, so leg weary he couldn't shoot straight when Donovan created a chance on the break.

Of course, the credit can't all go to our boys – Ghana deserves their fair share for slapping the Czechs around just before we took the field to outplay Azzurri in K-town. I think we should definitely thank them by putting them on the plane home Thursday afternoon.

So how can this occur?

The injury to Cory Gibbs and the suspension to Mastroeni makes it more difficult to go 3-5-2, which seems the perfect formation to handle Ghana's powerful midfield while allowing the back to keep track of slippery forward Matthew Amoah.

But maybe a shape change is unnecessary; if the Americans play with the fire they had against Italy, it shouldn't matter how Arena lines 'em up. I do believe the Ghana defense is punishable, provided we start putting some product at the end of our capable builds.

One way to do this is to start taking long free kicks into the area instead of tapping short to resume play. Ghana has fouled 22 times in each of their games at the tournament and coach Ratomir Dujkovic has lessened continuity by starting six different defenders.

With powerful set piece targets like Bocanegra, Jimmy Conrad, McBride and Onyewu on hand, it is time to send every ball possible hurtling toward their area. We could win a penalty or (gasp!) score a goal of our own doing with some good ol' fashioned American stick-to-it-iveness.

Mastroeni's absence could pave the way for John O'Brien to get his first start of the tourney. While not the man of steel his teammate is, the Chivas USA midfielder can read the game like few others and add more to the attack with his shrewd passes. Even if Johnny O isn't ready for 90 minutes, I'd just assume get the opening 60 out of him and work from there.

One way or another, I like the offense to show that they can indeed ring the bell in Germany. This time, it is truly a case of now-or-never.

As we all know, winning is only half of the advancement equation, but the Czechs are having all kinds of problems. Their top defender (Tomas Ujfalusi) is serving a ban, they have lost their top three strikers and I imagine Italy are plenty ticked off.

The heroic performance in game two has opened the door. It is high time we go ahead and charge right through it, right into a round of 16 clash with Brazil. Oh well… I guess we'll just have to jump off that bridge if we get to it.

I am not so eager to be wrong a third time… regular YA readers will recall that I predicted the US had 'learned their group closer lesson' in 2002.

Make me look good this time, boys.

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