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Just win

AHRENSBURG, Germany -- Don't blame the black cat lurking near the Park Hyatt in Hamburg.

Now that the opening game mess is over with, the situation has clarified for the U.S. team. They must win out their matches to go forward. No more hesitation or doubt can exist on how dire the situation has become after only one game.

One thing to be grateful for is that the team's slow start has finally exploded the myth of certain intangible elements somehow deciding the outcome. Superstitions are of no service now, because the U.S. players have to realize their fate lies in their own thus-far shaky hands.

It's gotten bad that quickly, after the squad closed out their opening match against the Czech Republic with a 3-0 loss. The setback was one of the worst ever in Bruce Arena's eight-year tenure. More tellingly, it came at a time and point that allowed for no excuses from the Americans. The team is healthy and had ample preparation for game.

The last players left off the team due to injuries, Cory Gibbs and Frankie Hejduk, while solid contributors, were not expected to be star players for the squad.

No bad calls or injustices settled the encounter. Perhaps the truth of being sunk by their own poor play will spur the U.S. on to improved execution.

The presentation against the Czechs impressed very few.

While some fans can take solace in the Claudio Reyna ricochet off the post that would have tied the game, a 3-0 loss is too comprehensive to look at one close miss as a turning point. Especially because on the other side, there was also a stinger of a shot by Rosicky that rang off the crossbar and denied him a hat-trick that could have made the final score even more painful.

The impartial Germans observing the match with me were puzzled to see the U.S. back four trading the ball back and forth rather passively throughout stretches of the game.

"Don't they want to win?" The prevailing sentiment was voiced. "Go forward to the goal."

With any luck, one consequence of the loss will be the death of some of the tangential aspects that have attached themselves to the team.

For example, the "Arena is genius" talk simply because during the tournament he lets his players stay in a city and have friends nearby. It's not a bad thing to let players enjoy the experience of the Cup, but it's hardly revolutionary.

It was far more of a stretch to expect an aging Reyna to dribble past the Czech defense.

Myths are dangerous because it's easy for some to be lulled by the idea that nonessential, secondary aspects are really to blame. Personal accountability is then put aside.

It's time for the players to take responsibility for the action on the field. The U.S. lost all their World Cup games in 1998 not because then-coach Steve Sampson had the team stay at a remote castle with swans; they lost because they didn't play well in their games.

In 2002, they didn't win and make the quarterfinals because Arena allowed more freedom and there was actual traffic on the street outside.

The U.S. came out charged in their first game in Korea. DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan led a speedy attack that caught the Portuguese team flatfooted. An early goal by a fully healthy and contributing John O'Brien gave the Americans even more confidence, and they kept on flying from there.

Against the Czech Republic, it didn't matter that Arena followed the same preparation blueprint as he had during the last World Cup. With Donovan pushed up to forward and seeing little of the ball, the U.S. midfield never really settled into a rhythm. The Czech team, desperate for a noteworthy hurrah to the services of their aging players, did not make the mistake of overlooking the U.S.

The sideshows around the team have overshadowed the basics of game play determining the result.

There's the unmarked bus surrounded by blatant and formidable security that labels who is on board more than the largest flag ever could.

There's the interplay of sarcastic asides from Arena to the press.

There's the omnipresent question of, will soccer go big in the U.S. if the team wins the World Cup?

There's the titillating speculation of just how much time the players are spending with their wives and girlfriends in a nearby hotel.

None of it matters. None of it affects play in any significant way. The actual play itself is the only thing that makes the difference here.

It was up to the U.S. squad to bring their best effort into their opening game and they simply failed to do that.

Four years ago, the US admittedly overachieved. Several players shouldered the challenge by coming up with some of the best performances of their lives.

Given the tough group the U.S. faced this time around, many pointed out that the team could very well play better in this tournament and yet not advance because the quality of competition was so high. The situation got much worse, however, when the team didn't even play as well as they did in 2002.

It's time now for players to stop speculating on the future of soccer in the U.S. and instead worry about the future of the U.S. team at this World Cup.

It's time for Arena to drop the jibes at reporters and figure out a plan to drop both Italy and Ghana.

It's time for the American team to reclaim its identity as the scrappy, never-say-die battlers who don't seem to realize they're in over their heads.

It's time for the flag to fly in their hearts, even if it's not painted on the bus.

The sports clich├ęs are there because sometimes they are real. It's time to put up, or shut up.

Because in this case, it really is all about the ball, and about knowing what to do with it at the right time. Nothing else matters. Win, or go home.

Andrea Canales covers soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com