Will the USA advance or will we take a step back to our 1998 World Cup form? This question has troubled all of us since the draw was announced in December 2005, and we realized that the USA were to be placed in a group with two of the top squads in the world as well as an up and coming African nation, Ghana. In addition, the USA has never played well in World Cups held on European soil. While we were all troubled by a horrible performance versus Germany in a March friendly, we do remember that a similarly bad performance in a friendly against the same Germany squad in 2002 did not indicate an unsuccessful cup. We also recall that positive results leading into the World Cup such as we had in 1998 when we achieved victories over Sweden, Brazil and Austria didn’t really matter either. In May 1998 I thought Steve Sampson was the best thing going. We had beaten Brazil, had just crushed Austria in Vienna and had a new 3-6-1 formation to place a distinctly American stamp on the worldwide sport. Two months later Steve Sampson was out of a job after the US had finished last in the World Cup. In December 2000, after barely clearing the second round of qualifying against the likes of Barbados and Guatemala I was convinced Bruce Arena was way over his head coaching the national team. Maybe Alan Rothenberg the former Federation chief who badly wanted Bora back after the 1998 WC disaster and was outvoted in favor Arena, whom he thought little of, was correct? Two years later, Arena had taken the USA within a controversial call of a semi-final bith in Korea/Japan 2002 and was building a regional soccer superpower. The uncertainty on pegging the fortunes of the USA before each cup proves why the World Cup is so difficult to get a handle on before the competition begins.
The group which the US was placed in is one of the most difficult at Germany 2006. However none of the opponents’ sides are so overwhelming to preclude any hope for the USA. Italy, of course is one of the world’s great Footballing nations, but the Italians have more question marks than usual entering this World Cup, largely because the squad has transitioned from a veteran side to a group of younger players thanks to Coach Marcelo Lippi. Italy well enter Germany 2006 on an 18 game unbeaten streak, including key victories over the Germany and Dutch in the last several months.