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Jun 11, 2006

A team of confidence

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- Forgive Bruce Arena for not playing the role of the happy-to-be-here American. Forgive the Brooklyn-born manager for stepping to the lime green World Cup podium, puffing out his chest out and unveiling the single most important trait that he hopes rubs off on his players.

Confidence.

Four years after the American's shocking run to the quarterfinal of the World Cup in South Korea, on the eve of the 2006 opening match against Czech Republic, the longest-tenured World Cup manager looked, sounded and carried himself like a man who believes his team is going to win.

"I'm basically sick of the preparation," Arena said. "We're very well prepared and there's little more to say. Now it's about stepping on the field and getting the job done.

"I can't wait for tomorrow."

Tomorrow is the day Arena and his staff have been pushing towards since the U.S. World Cup team first gathered in a Cary, North Carolina hotel ballroom over a month ago. Tomorrow has been the explanation for all that running, all that sweating and all that studying.

It's a chance to prove that 2002 wasn't a fluke. And that the U.S. is continuing its climb up the international soccer ladder. Sixteen years ago, in its first World Cup match in 40 years, a U.S. squad comprised mostly of college kids was outworked and outplayed in a 5-1 loss.

"You have to have a starting point," Arena said. "That was the starting point with U.S. soccer."

Tomorrow is a chance to prove how far the program has come. Standing in the way of the fifth-ranked Americans is the second-ranked Czechs, a talented but aging team that some believe could contend for the championship. After that is a match-up with Italy, followed by the final match of group play against under-appreciated Ghana.

But Monday's match, some might argue, is the most important. In the previous two World Cups, only one team -- Turkey in 2002 -- has lost its opening match and still advanced.

"The result of the first match is the key for success in the whole tournament," said Czech striker Jan Koller.

Added Arena: "If you come out poorly, you need the minimum four points in those next two matches. That's not psychological, that's mathematical."

But despite the opponent that he'll face come Monday, Captain Confidence isn't exactly shaking in his Nikes. He never does. When the U.S. draw was revealed back in December, Arena leaned over to Sunil Gulati, the President of U.S. Soccer, and told him not to worry. "We can get this done," Arena said then. "We can get out of the first round."

Now it's time for Arena, who has lost only 28 of the 127 international matches he's coached, to play the role of prophet.

"He makes you believe," fullback Eddie Pope said. "He just has this confidence that everyone gravitates towards. It helps pull you together."

Arena has been his typically tight-lipped self the past few weeks, refusing not only to reveal his starting lineup, but to even say when or where he told the team who was starting. Behind closed doors you get the sense that he's waving the no respect flag. Despite winning its qualifying region and having a higher FIFA ranking than Mexico, the United States was passed over for Mexico when it came time for World Cup seedings. Don't think the Americans have forgotten that.

And all week long here in Germany, the consistent focus of the international media has not been on the speed of DaMarcus Beasley or the goal-scoring ability of Brian McBride, but rather the impenetrable security surrounding the team as well as Arena's decision to allow the player's families to stay in the team hotel.

"We're a bit of an underdog," Arena said. "People talk about the United States for everything except our ability in the World Cup in soccer. And that's fine with us. We believe what we're about."

Like any smart, fearless coach of an underdog team, Arena has done everything possible to build the psyche of his players. He's on the record saying this team, which he's referred to as a "sleeping giant" has more depth, more talent than any other in U.S. history. They're completely healthy and training has been, "perfect."

"There are no excuses," he said. "We're ready to play."

Arena has put his team through a 10-day training camp in North Carolina, a trio of stateside friendlies against Morocco, Venezuela and Latvia and then ten more days of training in Germany, highlighted by a closed door scrimmage against Angola. Everything has been geared towards success on Monday.

And now that it's finally here, nobody -- players, coaches and staff members included -- can wait.

"You get to the stadium, you see the surroundings and you realize," said captain Claudio Reyna. "It's time. And it can't come quick enough."

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