THE 'NATS-EYE VIEW
When the draw for the 2006 World Cup Finals paired the US with the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana, the gasps from fans across the States could be heard in Leipzig.
Within minutes, the message boards were alight with speculation on the US' chances in the latest 'Group of Death' and everyone it seems has had their two cents.
But what about the guys who will be there on the field, facing Tomáš Rosický, Gennaro Gattuso and Michael Essien in the flesh? YA asked five of the players gunning for a place in Germany for their thoughts on the match-ups.
Reading ace Bobby Convey reflected the majority fan view when he saw the US come out of the hat.
"My first reaction to the draw was that we are definitely in one of the hardest groups," he told YA, "and that we are going to be at our best in all three games to have a good chance of qualifying out of the group. We are going to play against three very good teams."
Charlton's Jonathan Spector agreed. "It is going to be a tough group," but added, "I think we can get out of it. I am pretty optimistic, actually."
Heath Pearce, who made his debut for the US against Scotland in November and suddenly looks to be in with a shout of going to Germany, struck a defiant tone.
"My first reaction was that this is what the game is all about," said the upstart. "At some point, you have to beat the best to be the best. Of course you don't want to be placed in such a difficult group, but I think if anyone can get out of the group, it is the US."
After a first taste of the big time, the Nordsjaelland defender is now ticking off the idols he is planning to take apart in Germany.
"I have always been a fan of (Pavel) Nedvěd, so should he choose to play in the tournament that would be great," offered Pearce. "He is a veteran of the game, but still very lethal in going forward so he could cause some trouble if the US fields a young team."
"I would love to play against Luca Toni and Alessandro Nesta, who are both stars for the Italian side. For Ghana, it would be the obvious, Sammy Kuffour, Michael Essien and (Steven) Appiah as well as one of my teammates in Denmark (Francis Dickoh), who is in the Ghanaian side."
"Toni has been lighting up the Italian league with Fiorentina. As for the rest of the tournament, once you make the knockout stages, every team will be strong, but a few players to watch out for would be Robinho, (Leo) Messi, and Ronaldinho to name a few."
Convey was less specific on who he would enjoy coming up against. "I don't think there is one name that would stand out among them because any time a player goes to a World Cup they are going to be good. There are very good players on each team."
Leeds United's Eddie Lewis, a US star in Korea last time around, agreed: "Obviously, there are few top players on each of the teams and all those squads have fantastic individual players, big names and big reputations. If we are going to be successful it's because we are a better team than them."
It seem team spirit and togetherness could be the keys to overcoming apparently superior opposition, as the US did in 2002 with one of the pre-tournament favorites Portugal - World Player of the Year and all.
"I don't think they were afraid last time," says Spector. "I think we were confident then and we will be confident again."
But the difference this time is that the opponents will be more mentally focused on not underestimating the US, following their run to the quarterfinals in Korea. Whereas victims Portugal and Mexico publicly admitted they were expecting to brush the States aside, the Czech and Italian scouts will surely not fall into the same hubristic trap.
"I don't think so because we have proven over the past years that we are a good team with a lot of potential to do well," opines Feyenoord's Cory Gibbs. "I think our only downfall is that we have not done well playing the powerhouse teams, but I think we will be well prepared going into Germany."
Convey was less sure. "I think that they wont take us lightly but they will still think that they are better then us," he told YA. "I think teams know that the US is an up-and-coming soccer nation and they will definitely think we are a good team especially after the last World Cup."
Pearce concurred: "I think that the US is still a very young soccer country therefore people will always have their doubts, but this time around I think we will be taken much more seriously. It would be foolish for any coach to not take the US seriously."
Lewis, the only veteran of 2002 we asked, was less equivocal. "No, the cat is out of the bag now," he stated. "We are a team to be respected. We remain an underdog in the group, but we won't be taken lightly."
In the opinion of Spector, the historic 3-2 win over Luis Figo & Co. in Suwon did change perceptions. "I don't think there are going to be too many teams that will take the US lightly anymore after the result against Portugal in the last World Cup. We have been gaining respect from countries around the world since last time."
The problem remains the US record against top European teams, Portugal apart, in big tournaments and on European soil.
According to Gibbs, the 'Nats might be respected now more than ever, but has a way to go before it is considered worthy of the 2002 finish and a persistent top 10 FIFA ranking.
"Yes, because we don't have a great record against the powerhouse teams," he states matter of fact-ly. The US has lost in the Finals to Brazil (1994), Germany in both 1998 and 2002 and, in the past two years, has suffered defeats to traditional soccer powers Brazil, Argentina, England and Holland.
"Being over here in Europe, you start to understand the mentality towards the US team and that we still do have a long way to go to becoming a top team," explains Convey. "Once we start to win at the World Cup on a consistent basis, other countries will then start looking at us as an elite team."
"I think that it will take many years before people open their eyes to see the US is coming up," thinks Pearce. "But if the US continues to perform and get results the world will have no choice but to welcome us to the top flight of world soccer. Again, we are a young soccer nation, but results will talk for themselves."
We can be certain that the US run will be measured with slide-rule accuracy given the conundrum of the widespread whispers that their FIFA ranking is inflated, despite the obvious progress since the fiasco of France '98. When it comes to what will constitute a successful run for the US, differences of opinion appeared among the players.
For Spector, another quarterfinal finish would be a job well done. "I see no reason why the US can't go as far as they did last time around as there are a lot of talented players and there is a great coaching staff."
Meanwhile, for Gibbs it means a semifinal: "Just doing better than we did in the last World Cup - we had a great run the last World Cup, but we want to achieve more and get better and better from year to year."
Convey however will be relieved to even reach the second round. "I think that getting out of your group is a successful run at the World Cup because there are three world class teams in our group and to beat them is an accomplishment. After that, you go game by game and anything can happen."
"Getting out of the group," Lewis agreed succintly.
Pearce, however, has higher standards to aim for. "A successful run in the World Cup in my eyes would be winning the cup and this comes with being an American."
"One thing I think is unique about the US is that most people are brought up to believe that the sky is the limit and anything is possible and that is the mentality that I believe will set us apart from other nations next year and in the years to come."
Should the US escape their group of death then their second round clash will be against one of Japan, Croatia, Australia or (deep breath) Brazil.
"If we were to go out at any stage, I would hope it would be to a team who on that day was just better but we still gave a fight," added Pearce. "To me, that would still be successful."
"It is a tournament, and on any given day anyone can win or lose,"
Echoed Spector: "In an environment like the World Cup anything can happen, so it is important to win or at least get a result in every single game. The US will take every game seriously and we will be a difficult team to beat."
And the States is able to do the job even when the odds are unfavorable, as they were in Suwon and Jeonju in 2002, or indeed in Belo Horizonte in 1950:
"The US has a great work ethic," Spector reminds. "American teams always do from youth level up. So they will just go out and play football and get the results."
As far as Pearce is concerned, it is time again for America to throw away the doubts and let their soccer do the talking.
"The US has proven themselves by qualifying at a steady pace, but we have yet to prove ourselves on European soil. This could be that time."
[note]YA's Greg Seltzer and Chad Winger also contributed to this feature[/note]