World Cup: The U.S. Learns How (Not) to Play — the Hard Way

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In the U.S.'s third appearance at a European-hosted World Cup tournament, this much we can say: U.S. fans now have this fussball stuff down. "We struggled through the hard years. Now we belong," said attorney Dave Cattie, 31, as he wrestled in line for the right to buy a Bud for three and a half Euros. Budweiser in Germany? Oh, that. The Germans were outraged that an American brewer had the beer concession, but Anheuser Busch knows how to play global marketing as well as anyone: money talks, especially at FIFA, the world soccer body. Nevertheless, AB had to allow a local brewer inside the stadium just to make friends, which is, after all, the theme of the tournament.

Let it not be said the Americans can't behave like European fans. A large contingent filled a corner of a terrific stadium at Gelsenkirchen, a Ruhr valley town about 60 miles northeast of Cologne, at the end of a hot sunny day. They were drinking hard; they were dressed to the hilt in U.S. national team shirts (and the inevitable baseball hats); there were Elvis impersonators and even some moron in an Uncle Sam outfit. We were rolling. "It's going to be like a snowball, like Lance Armstrong winning the Tour," asserted Christian Kantlehner, 23, from Rutland, Vermont, anticipating a U.S. win. The American fans got a good rhythmic chant going before the game started, (not the usual U-S-A) and sounded absolutely patriotic during the playing of the national anthem. That is to say, they actually sang the words — must have been a well-educated bunch — and produced a massive American flag. It was, in fact, quite moving. Sam's Army, as they are known, were ready for battle, and more than a match for the Czech fans who outnumbered them in the stands.

Then, unfortunately, the game started.

Within 5 minutes, the 6-foot-8-inch giant stork who plays striker for the Czechs, Jan Koller, beat two U.S. defenders to a cross and put the Czechs ahead 1-0. It was the beginning of a long night. Koller was one of three Czech players the U.S. had to contain, the others being Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky, the twin engines of the midfield. They went 0-for-3 on that account.

Although the U.S. has been determined to attack heading into the tournament, the offense couldn't do a thing until the 28th minute when Claudio Reyna took a feed from Landon Donovan and clanked one off the right post of Czech goalie Peter Cech, the ball rebounding past a closing DaMarcus Beasley. The Americans began to chant again, annoying their Czech counterparts, who started to whistle. But Rosicky quickly quieted the Yanks with a 35-yard blast — think 450-foot home run — that screamed by U.S. keeper Kasey Keller in the 36th minute. The U.S. made several substitutions at halftime, including Eddie Johnson, who provided a lift in the attack, but Rosicky would close this game out in the 77th minute with a beautifully taken goal off a feed from Nedved, slicing up the U.S. defense and silencing American fans for the evening.

"Compared to the last World Cup, we were not that aggressive, we were reacting. We're just not playing," former national team member Thomas Dooley told TIME. As time ran down, and before the Czechs could do more damage, Dooley headed for the exits with the rest of the losers. "See you in Kaiserslatern," he said, referring to the U.S. game against Italy this Saturday. We'll be there, we told him. Let's just hope the U.S. team shows up, too.