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May 28, 2006

U.S. team gets needed rest before World Cup

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- After 10 days of training in North Carolina and send-off series matches against Morocco, Venezuela and Latvia, U.S. men's national team coach Bruce Arena had few plans before his squad leaves for Germany on Thursday.

"I might just lie on the couch at home," Arena said.

No one would blame him or any of his staff or players for making similar feet-off-the-floor plans. Sunday night's 1-0 victory over Latvia at Rentschler Field wrapped up a grueling series of stateside World Cup preparations for the U.S. team, which opens World Cup play June 12 against the Czech Republic.

U.S. World Cup schedule
• Monday, June 12 -- vs. Czech Republic at Gelsenkirchen, Germany, noon (ESPN2)
• Saturday, June 17 -- vs. Italy at Kaiserslautern, Germany, 3 p.m. (ABC)
• Thursday, June 22 -- vs. Ghana at Nuremberg, Germany, 10 a.m. (ESPN)

"I honestly can't imagine any other country in the world putting in more work than we have the past three weeks," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "I can't."

The players now have three days to unwind and pack before departing for Germany on Thursday. Once there, preparations will shift from physically demanding workouts designed to whip players into shape to sharpening the technical skills necessary to beat the Czechs, the world's second-ranked team.

"Now we begin some of the fine-tuning," midfielder and team captain Claudio Reyna said. "The little things it takes to win."

Sunday's outcome against Latvia was irrelevant. It had no statistical bearing on how the Americans will fare overseas. Yet, in front of a crowd of 24,636, there was forward Brian McBride, bumping heads with an opponent to create a golfball-sized welt on the side of his noggin. There was fellow forward Eddie Johnson, his sweat-soaked red U.S. jersey clinging to his skin like two pieces of Velcro. And there was goalkeeper Kasey Keller, frustrated by a couple of defensive lapses early in the second half, barking for his teammates to turn up the effort.

The U.S. dominated for much of the first half, relentlessly attacking Latvia's goal until McBride snuck a header past goalkeeper Aleksandrs Kolinko in the 43rd minute. The team played sluggish at points in the second half, allowing Latvia a handful of scoring chances, but Keller made three saves. Playing three games in one week, Arena understood his players' second-half struggles.

"I've pushed them hard and run them into the ground the last three weeks," the coach said. "But from here, we're only going to get better."

When the match ended, the stadium lights were turned off and the players sat on the field and watched a video montage of the qualifying run that helped them punch their tickets to Germany. With some 20,000 still inside the stadium, fireworks lit up the night New England sky.

"It's been a long journey to get here," said DaMarcus Beasley, who was moved by Arena to right midfield from left. "You look back on something like that and you realize how much we've accomplished. But trust me, we have more we want to accomplish."

The video was the feel-good ending to training camp, culminating in a three-game week in which the Americans beat Venezuela and Latvia, but lost to Morocco.

On the plus side was the play of newcomers Clint Dempsey and Bobby Convey, who may end up challenging for a spot among the starting 11. And midfielder John O'Brien, beset by injury since starring in the 2002 Cup, took several hard fouls Sunday and played 66 minutes without trouble.

But the negatives included a hamstring injury to Reyna, which forced him to the bench for all but 11 minutes of the three games. Arena said Sunday that Reyna should be ready for Cup play. Also troubling was a knee injury to defender Cory Gibbs, who was replaced on the roster by Gregg Berhalter.

What does it all mean? How will it all come together when the matches count? The answers won't come for a couple of weeks. Until then, it's time to kick back.

"You don't get the benefit of all that hard work unless you get some rest," Donovan said. "We need a few days mentally and physically. Right now, we hate each other."

The couch-bound Arena agreed.

"Right now, everyone needs three or four days off," he said, "including the coaches."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.