For U.S., victory is only option

Fates of team, Arena on the line vs. Italy

June 17, 2006|By CHARLES BRICKER | CHARLES BRICKER,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Has it hit you, a reporter asked 32-year-old American midfielder Claudio Reyna yesterday, that this could be your final two World Cup games?

The question might as easily have been put to the man sitting on Reyna's right, U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, whose career could be teetering on a thin precipice if the United States doesn't produce a magnificent reversal of fortune in today's must-win match against Italy.

With a loss to the Italians and a Czech Republic win over weak Ghana, the U.S. would be mathematically eliminated and there almost certainly will be demands that Arena, after eight years of captaining this soccer ship, be replaced.

Even with a tie today and a Czech tie, there is only a slim chance the U.S. will advance to the round of 16. Though they might equal the Czechs or Italy with four points for one of the two advancing spots, the first tiebreaker is goal difference, and Arena's club is already in a deep hole after a 3-0 loss to the Czechs on Monday.

Four years ago, Arena was one of the hot prospects in world soccer after forging a quarterfinal run that finished on a substantially high note in a 1-0 loss to Germany.

Today, his team is fighting just to avoid humiliation. A loss to Italy is expected. A one-sided loss would leave the U.S. as a laughingstock in the world soccer community.

"We know what we need," said Reyna, who insisted that his teammates have rallied emotionally after the disastrous start. "We need a result of some magnitude, and I think that urgency can help us."

If the U.S. falls to 0-2 in the opening round, it will be a bit unfair to pile on Arena, who was unlucky to be drawn into one of the two toughest four-team groups in the tournament.

Had the United States been in Group H, as Spain is, to play Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Ukraine, chances are the team would be favored to move on to the next round.

But toughness of schedule is a rationale that isn't likely to save anyone's job, and, in fact, there is no guarantee that Arena wouldn't be leaving the U.S. team even as a winner.

It isn't often that coaches remain with their World Cup teams more than four years. When Brazil won the Cup in 2002 with Luiz Felipe Scolari, he was soon replaced by Carlos Alberto Parreira.

But if Arena was leaving with at least some success in this World Cup, he would be in demand in other countries that have successful soccer programs.

He's not going to discuss his future or anything else that takes focus off this game against Italy. It is a team, he said somewhat cheekily, that has no weaknesses. "I know of none," he said. "Not at the moment."

Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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