Team USA Lives On

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Carlos Bocanegra of the United States heads the ball down. An Italian defender then scuffed into his own goal

It was a bizarre and wonderful night for U.S. soccer: Handed a lifeline by the Czech Republic, which had lost to Ghana earlier in the day, Team U.S.A. did its best to strangle itself with it, only to emerge with a 1-1 tie against Italy after playing most of the second half with 9 players to Italy's 10. "Our guys did a tremendous job. They played with a lot of heart," said U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the game.

Once again a loud and boisterous contingent of American fans was on hand to will their team on and to blood themselves as ugly European fans.

It wasn't any easy night for anyone, including spectators. Fritz Walter Stadium sits on a hilltop in the south part of Kaiserslautern. In the hours before the game, fans trudged up the steep hill — there is no parking — to take their place at a site better suited for a ski jump. No wonder they were so cheery standing in line for beers, even singing the national anthem — they'd finally made it to the top. They did an encore for the start of the game — loud and proud — and immediately began howling at the ref. We could have been at the NBA playoffs.

The U.S. team started far more aggressively than it had in the droopy performance against the Czechs. They fouled early and often, and when they got the ball they attacked, particulary down the right side. That was thanks to Clint Dempsey — inserted into the lineup for a lethargic DaMarcus Beasley — who couldn't wait to take on the Italian defense. The man looked absolutely cool, neatly combining with Bobby Convey in the 20th minute, the latter skying the cross.

But the fouls were adding up, and in the 22nd minute they proved fatal. A free kick from the right wing found its way to an unmarked Alberto Gilardino, and he did not miss with the header. The U.S. has had a glaring weakness in restarts after fouls — it was evident in warm-up games, and the problem hadn't eased any here. But before Italy had a chance to set up its bolt-the-door defense for the night, the Americans were level. Italy's Cristian Zaccardo knocked Bobby Convey's cross into his own net.

As if Italy's own goal wasn't strange enough, soon after the night turned absolutely bizarre. In the 27th minute, Italy's Daniele De Rossi was tossed from the game for elbowing Brian McBride in the face — fortunately, McBride is used to these sorts of things. It meant, at the time, that the Italians would have to play a man short. But not for long. The U.S . continued to press , and in the 33rd minute Carlos Bocanegra went close with a shot. That was enough for Italian coach Marcelo Lippi, who withdrew stud striker Francesco Totti in the 35th minute and put on his Rotweiller, Gennaro Gattuso, a rough defensive midfielder. Gattuso had barely begun hacking people when the sides were equal, Pablo Mastroeni being dismissed in the 45th minute for what was deemed a harsh tackle, but in reality may have been referee Jor Larrionda's way of making the sides even.

The second half was barely 2 minutes old when the U.S., which anticipated playing with a man advantage for a half, now found itself down a man when Eddie Pope was given his marching orders by Mr. Larrionda for a second yellow-card foul. The U.S. crowd, some 10,000 of whom filled one corner of the arena, let loose with that classic "Bullshit, Bullshit" chant and began flinging plastic cups, some of them half filled to get greater distance. (And that cost money, by the way. All beer cups here are returnable for a one euro deposit — these are the green World Cup games.)

The U.S. team was now in rare territory. "I've never experienced that," Arena said after the game. "We've trained 11 versus 10 but never 10 versus 9." This particular disadvantage required maximum effort from all the U.S players — it's a lot of space to cover on a 130-yard soccer field. "Claudio was fantastic, he had a great game," said Arena of his captain, Claudio Reyna, who marshaled the U.S. team with a combination of smarts and aggression, picking apart Italy's midfield with his passing. Despite the manpower shortage, the U.S. still managed to defend and attack in numbers. Arena inserted DaMarcus Beasley in the 62d minute, and the move almost paid off instantly: Beasley broke in from the left and put one past Italian keeper Gianluigi Buffon, but Mr. Larrionda disallowed the strike because McBride had been standing in an offside position. The American fans rained more cups — and euros — at the field.

Still, Italy began to press hard, with Lippi inserting striker Allesandro Del Piero and Arena countering with the no-nonsense defender Jimmy Conrad, who would bully Italians for the rest of the night. But it was American keep Kasey Keller who would soon earn his man of the match with a number of saves at full stretch, including one in the 73rd minute on a shot by Del Piero, as the American fans howled their approval. With 10 minutes left in the game, it was clear the U.S. would settle for the draw, and they defended grimly until the end, finishing to a rapturous applause from the U.S. supporters. The U.S. lives. The Yanks could still advance with a win over Ghana and a Czech loss to Italy. It's a long shot, but it is now clear that they have the loudest fans in the group. Maybe in the tournament. That ought to count for something.