Five disappointing minutes
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- They came by the thousands, waving their flags, singing their songs and strutting across the scorching stadium parking lot as if their team had some sort of illustrious soccer past.
Some came from the United States, some came from Europe but all were decked in red, white and blue. They wore the Stars and Stripes as a bikini, danced to "Born in the U.S.A." in the parking lot and carried themselves with the same level of confidence their team had exhibited all week.
But five minutes. That's all it took for the second-ranked soccer country in the world to poke a pin into all that enthusiasm. That's all it took for 6-foot-8 Jan Koller to head a sling shot past U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, giving the Czech Republic an early 1-0 lead while shoving a giant stick of dynamite in Bruce Arena's pregame plans.
The Americans had never won a World Cup game in which their opponent scored first. And they wouldn't win this one, either.
Eighty-five minutes later, when it was all said and done, the Czech Republic had dealt the U.S. a 3-0 loss, a firm reminder of the Americans' place in international soccer's pecking order. After a "perfect" month of training, with a roster Arena had referred to as a "sleeping giant" -- a group some believed was the greatest U.S. team ever assembled -- the only thing the Americans had offered the world was the most lopsided loss thus far in the tournament.
"It was embarrassing," midfielder Landon Donovan said.
Midway through the second half, after three substitutions and several words of encouragement, Arena sat back on the U.S. bench and assumed the position of a man who had accepted defeat. Hands folded behind his head, eyes looking above, he shook his head at the action taking place before him.
All week long, he and his players had revealed the utmost confidence going into their match with the Czechs. "If we play to our abilities, I think we can play with anyone," Keller and teammates kept repeating.
Boy was that a big if. Yes, the Americans are at a point in their soccer evolution that if everyone shows up, they have the potential to beat anyone. On the flip side, though, if a few key players fail to show up, they can lose to anyone, too. Especially the second-ranked country in the world.
After Monday's defeat, Arena ripped several U.S. players for disappointing performances. The list included everyone except Claudio Reyna, Oguchi Onyewu and, to a certain extent, Bobby Convey. Everyone else -- Donovan and Keller included -- the manager didn't believe played to his individual abilities.
"That's true, to be fair about it," said Donovan, who hasn't scored in his last 16 international matches, dating back to July. "Not enough guys came to play."
Which is incomprehensible. Since the first time Arena gathered his players more than a month ago, he constantly hammered home that everything they were doing was to prepare for June 12. When the team disappointingly dropped a late May friendly to Morocco, he told reporters not to worry -- the only thing that matters is June 12.
Now June 12 finally arrives and, within five minutes, one thing is clear: The Americans are a long way from being a legitimate World Cup contender.
"That first goal changed everything," captain Reyna said.
Of course it did. Although the U.S. team wanted to stay back and let the Czech attack come to it, the natural instinct after going down an early goal is to attack more aggressively.
"Sometimes in training, we'll say, 'We're down a goal,'" Donovan said. "But you're not down a goal in the fifth minute. It's your natural instinct to want to score. It's the World Cup -- you don't just want to sit back."
Reyna came close to tying it when he hit the post in the 28th minute, but that's as close as the U.S. would come. In 14 all-time World Cup matches, the Americans are 3-10-1 on European soil. They've lost all eight matches against European teams by a 23-4 margin.
Up next? Eleventh-ranked Italy. And more ugly statistics.
No U.S. team has advanced after losing its first match in group play. In fact, only one team in the past two World Cups -- Turkey in 2002 -- has moved on after a first-game loss.
Now, it falls to Arena's shoulders to get his team ready to play -- mentally and physically. One of the things Donovan said he noticed on the field Monday was a lack of confidence.
"From a lot of people," he said. "We'd turn it over, then get all nervous and the next time get the ball and just kick it downfield. We're better than that."
It will be Arena's job to change that. After Monday's loss, he gathered his team around him in the locker room and gave a simple instruction: Don't let the Czech Republic beat you twice.
In other words, don't let the bitter taste of this embarrassing defeat affect what happens on the field Saturday against Italy.
"You just have to focus on the game at hand," midfielder John O'Brien said. "Three goals, sure it's disappointing. But tomorrow, you've got to put it behind you. We've got to focus on what we need to do to turn this thing around."
They can start with the first five minutes.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.