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Warning signs

If the penalty call had not been botched so badly.

If the red card had not been pulled so quickly.

If the shots that hit the post had just gone in.

If the goal had not been called for offsides.

"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you," Rudyard Kipling once wrote, obviously prophesying the fans' reaction to the U.S. team's efforts in the 2006 World Cup.

All the maybes aren't flying this June, though.

After all, it's not as though the U.S. couldn't see what was coming.

So the country couldn't seem to get the benefit of a call. That's not new at the World Cup.

One also might take notice of the fact that the U.S. isn't very popular in Europe, either.

Of course, world events shouldn't affect a sporting event, but the clue of the ripple effect probably could be found even before the tournament kicked off. Not a single American referee made the FIFA cut for the World Cup. American referees have been at more World Cups than American teams have; the sudden omission was not a good sign.

More telling was the assumption by many that the World Cup automatically would kick up the intensity and focus of the players. It happened in 2002, but that kind of lightning is hard to bottle.

The Americans had a tepid offense in many games leading up to the World Cup. They tied Jamaica, a team that didn't even make the final round of World Cup qualifying, 1-1. They barely defeated Poland, 1-0 on a fluky goal. They lost to Morocco, a team that didn't qualify for the Cup, by the same score. Only another bizarre goal saved the team from being shut out against Germany in a 4-1 trouncing.

There were excuses every time, though. The best players weren't present. Training had drained energy from the team. One slipup had changed a game the U.S. dominated. If the U.S. team had nothing else completely ready to go at the World Cup, the justifications had been rehearsed thoroughly.

Unlike, for example, Landon Donovan's preparation at forward. One might think that if Donovan was going to spend half of the World Cup in that position, at least one of the lead-up games would have featured the team using him there as practice for the real thing.

There also was more negativity in the air at the World Cup -- and not just because having U.S. practices blanketed in security made them a depressing reminder of the need for such measures.

Coach Bruce Arena continually was trying to put out the fires started by player comments. First, there was DaMarcus Beasley's about how much he disliked the secretiveness and uncertainty of the lineup. Then, there was Bobby Convey's statement that the players were unsure of their roles. Eddie Johnson's declaration comparing the World Cup to a war didn't help matters, either.

On the other hand, perhaps the most surprising proclamations were those by Arena himself. After the team's first game, a comprehensive defeat by the Czech Republic, he was sharply critical of certain players, apparently oblivious to the risk of further eroding their confidence while group play was still ongoing.

He then curtly established that the players were fine with his statements, even though Beasley had taken issue with them. Arena blamed the media for overblowing a rift that wasn't there, but it was hard to verify such a claim when media access to Beasley was denied completely.

Despite the U.S. complaints about cards and calls, a valid point was brought up when Arena was asked directly whether he had planned beforehand to prepare his players for how tightly the games were going to be called. FIFA had trumpeted its intention to crack down on cynical fouls and even had set up a special page on its Web site, complete with photos of examples of plays referees had been instructed to card.

Arena admitted he did not show the Web page to his players, saying instead that he expected them to be "professional."

Indeed, it's not as if Pablo Mastroeni didn't know it was incumbent on him to avoid harsh tackles unless they were completely necessary.

Even before the tournament, Oguchi Onyewu was aware that his size makes him a bit of a card target.

Perhaps it was too much trouble, taking into account the factors and coming up with a game plan to help mitigate the circumstances of anti-U.S. perception, the track record of weak scoring, the issues of discretion concerning player performance and the reality of FIFA's new standards on fouls.

Perhaps such signals were lost in the flush of confidence given by the team's supremacy over CONCACAF rivals.

"I would tend to think that if it's not broken, don't fix it," Arena said during a news conference. He was referring to Ghana's potential strategy, but the statement revealed something of his own sentiments, as well.

A more proactive approach might have served the U.S. squad better.

Few might have been willing to admit how vulnerable the U.S. team was, though. Without any superstars or credible depth, the one major asset the Americans possess is their cohesive teamwork. If that is compromised in any way, other elements waver.

The signs were there, the writing on the wall, but as with that Web page, no one bothered to see it.

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