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AP Blog: U.S. Team Enjoys Day Off

June 18, 2006

Now that the World Cup is underway, AP writers will be filing periodic, behind-the-scenes reports during soccer’s largest spectacle:

SUNDAY, June 18:

HAMBURG, Germany _ Day off for the U.S. team.

Just before Bruce Arena’s 3 p.m. news conference, Claudio Reyna was in the mall below the Park Hyatt, with his family, having an ice cream.

It was a day to chill for players. Arena heaped praise on everyone who played in Saturday night’s historic 1-1 tie with Italy, saving his criticism for the officiating _ not just of Saturday night’s game, but for the entire tournament. Too many cards, he said. Let the players play.

On Tuesday, attention turns to Ghana. To advance, the United States needs to beat Ghana on Thursday and hope Italy defeats the Czech Republic in a game played simultaneously. There are many other combinations, all involving an American win, but they require a goal combinations that seem contortionlike and aren’t likely to occur.

_ AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


HANOVER, Germany _ Germany has gone ``fussball″-mad during the World Cup. But on a warm Sunday afternoon, in the tiny Maschpark Stadion, I find myself football-bemused.

American football, that is.

I have a ticket to see the Goettingen Generals play the Wolfsburg Blue Wings. After 18 days in Germany, even accented Americana sounds good.

It’s the midpoint of the first quarter when I arrive. How much time remains, only the referee knows. There is no game clock, and the scoreboard (7-0, Generals) is a placard near the north end zone.

By halftime, it’s 20-0. Concessions are in order.

There’s the everpresent bratwurst _ and because this is the home stadium of a sports club founded by Turkish immigrants, there’s Koefte Tasch. It’s a sort of spiced hamburger stuffed into flatbread, with lettuce and tomato.

That and a drink will set you back, at most, the equivalent of $6. You can spend that just smelling food at a stadium in the U.S.

I got my ticket from the cousin of Florian Bangert, a mohawked linebacker who is Goettingen’s captain. Most of the crowd of around 500 are friends or family members of the players, all amateurs who range in age from their 20s to around 50.

I get the feeling the roster is somewhat fluid. Maybe it’s the program announcement that Goettingen is always looking for new talent.

(Not to single out any position, but if you live nearby and can long-snap, practice is from 7-9 p.m. on Wednesdays.)

Also, neither team has anyone who can throw the ball more than 10 yards downfield on a line. Goettingen compensates with trick plays, including several effective halfback passes. Wolfsburg compensates largely by being tackled and shanking punts.

In the third quarter, I wonder aloud whether the officials have forgotten their penalty flags.

No one else seems to be complaining. David Martin, a student at Cal-Berkeley doing a term at the local Georg-August University, says it’s because few fans really understand the rules.

Then, there’s a flag as Goettingen lines up to defend an extra point.

I count helmets. There are 12, which even the most casual fan knows is ``illegales bewegung.″

This is a good year for the Generals _ sort of.

In the system of promotion and relegation, the last-place team in the top division drops down to the lower one for the next season, while the best team in the lower division moves up. Goettingen spends alternate years dominating the lower division and getting creamed in the upper one.

The Generals were relegated after last year, which means it’s their turn to dish out the beatings. They win 40-7.

There is no Gatorade bath for coach Matthias Schmuecker. Instead, players open bottles of beer and head for the stands to schmooze.

So, to review:

I saw players of varying age and skill levels, often improvising their strategies and breaking out the brew as soon as the game ended.

It really was just like the American game ...

_AP Sports Writer Steve Brisendine


SATURDAY, June 17:

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany _ In Italy, games like this are called ``brutta figura.″

Few times has the U.S. soccer team been so proud of a tie. The Americans got their first World Cup point on European soil, a rough 1-1 draw against Italy.

So what does it all mean?

If the United States beats Ghana on Thursday in Nuremberg, it can advance if Italy defeats Czech Republic the same day in Hamburg. There also are another bunch of what-ifs, but they all involved the Americans winning by four or more goals, which hasn’t happened since _ well, it’s never happened.

It was a crazy game. Alberto Gilardino scored in the 22nd minute, the United States tied it five minutes later when Italy defender Cristian Zaccardo knocked Bobby Convey’s free kick into the net as he tried to clear the ball before it reached Brian McBride. Then, Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda had both teams seeing red _ red cards.

A minute after the Americans tied it, Italy’s Daniele De Rossi elbowed McBride, opening a cut on the forward’s cheek. De Rossi, who was sent off, apologized to McBride after the game.

Then American midfielder Pablo Mastroeni was tossed in the 45th minute for a cleats-up tackle on Andrea Pirlo. Two minutes into the second half, U.S. defender Eddie Pope got his second yellow card, for a foul on Gilardino.

Kasey Keller made two great saves on Gilardino. DaMarcus Beasley, benched from the starting lineup but in the game as a second-half sub, put the ball in the net in the 66th, but it was disallowed because McBride was offsides.

And that doesn’t even account for all the near misses.

But as much as the play on the field, a lasting memory is the thousands of Americans fans, some no doubt from the nearby U.S. military bases. For perhaps the first time since returning to the World Cup in 1990, the Americans weren’t at a fan disadvantage. Fritz-Walter-Stadion sure had a lot of red, white and blue.

Now it’s off to the train station for the 6 a.m. back to Hamburg, where Arena is to hold an afternoon news conference. Only on Thursday will it become clear if this World Cup is a boom or bust for the United States.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


FRIDAY, June 16:

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany _ Fritz-Walter-Stadion is perched on a bluff, sort of like the Polo Grounds, and is in the middle of a residential neighborhood, just like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. After climbing what seemed like 100 steps, it finally was possible to view the 15 minutes of U.S. practice that was open Friday.

The Americans are staying at Ramstein Air Base, and captain Claudio Reyna said they were quite happy to be able to have U.S. television networks on their sets. Coach Bruce Arena said the team was ready for Saturday’s game _ it better be, because a loss likely means elimination.

Italy, a three-time tournament favorite, seemed cool and collected in the mixed zone after a workmanlike practice. Unlike the Americans, they don’t care about prying eyes.

K-Town, as it’s known, is filled with U.S. military. The bars downtown blared Rod Stewart and Eddie Money. There might be more of a homefield advantage for the Americans here than in the United States, where immigrants tend to root for their homelands, not for the red, white and blue. Hundreds of Americans, many draped in flags and some wearing Uncle Sam hats, were in the streets until early Saturday morning. Should be a fun atmosphere.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


THURSDAY, June 15:

HAMBURG, Germany _ The day began with breakfast with Bruce, harkening back to 2002, when U.S. coach Bruce Arena accommodated the U.S. media in South Korea with 8 a.m. access so stories could be refreshed for the next day’s papers. This time, he agreed to move the daily news conference from the afternoon to 8:30 a.m. so that the media could make it to the Ecuador-Costa Rica game at AOL Arena, which began at 3 p.m.

He generally said phooey to assertions by DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey that the U.S. team was confused during the big loss to the Czechs. He also said that the team would be staying at Ramstein Air Base, outside Kaiserslautern, for the two nights before Saturday’s game against Italy because of security concerns over the FIFA-designated team hotels in Mannheim.

While the team traveled, Ecuador beat the Costa Ricans 3-0 and advanced to the second round for the first time, showing the Tricolors can play at sea level, too. The most touching moment came in second-half injury time, when Ivan Kaviedes pulled a Spider-Man mask from his shorts _ in Ecuador’s team color of yellow, of course _ and put it on in tribute to Otilino Tenorio, a teammate killed in a May 2005 car crash in Ecuador, just three days after he played for his country in an exhibition game at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium. Tenorio was nicknamed Spider-Man, and used to put on the mask during his goal celebrations.

_ AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum



HAMBURG, Germany _ A rather strange news conference, with Bobby Convey saying some players didn’t know what they were supposed to do in Monday’s opener against the Czech Republic, a deflating 3-0 loss.

``I think the reason why we didn’t do well is because everyone did not do their role, maybe didn’t know their role, maybe didn’t know what to do,″ Convey said.

``I don’t think it was confusion. It wasn’t that people didn’t know where to go. We just kind of didn’t really jell well together,″ he said. ``It wasn’t a negative thing. It’s just that we kind of _ we just did OK. At a World Cup, it’s not fine to do just OK.″

Mmmm. The preparation for these games began months ago, and the team has been pretty much together since May 10. Perhaps the flexibility of the American team _ Landon Donovan is a forward and a midfielder, DaMarcus Beasley can play on the left or the right, Eddie Lewis can play left midfield or a left back _ has confused players rather than become a benefit.

Eddie Johnson, also at the late-afternoon news conference, likened playing in the World Cup to going to war, a metaphor that came up after the U.S. forward was asked about the team’s visit to a U.S. military base.

``Whenever you put your jersey on and you look at your crest and the national anthem’s going on, and you’re playing against a different country, it’s like you do or die, it’s survival of the (fittest) over 90-minutes plus. We’re going to go out there and do whatever we’ve got to do, make tackles, do the things when the referee’s not looking. ... to get three points.″

That ``do things when the referee’s not looking″ remarks might not go over well with game officials.

Brenda Frese, coach of NCAA women’s basketball champion Maryland, attended the news conference and watched from the back of the room. Her husband is a videographer for the U.S. team.

The team was to go to a reception at the U.S. consulate on Wednesday night.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


TUESDAY, June 13:

HAMBURG, Germany _ Back at the Park Hyatt, it was a day for blame assessment at U.S. World Cup headquarters. Coach Bruce Arena said blame Landon Donovan, blame DaMarcus Beasley, blame Kasey Keller, blame Eddie Lewis, blame Steve Cherundolo. And yes, blame himself.

``You can check all the boxes, you can blame it all on me. I accept that,″ he said. ``Players play a little bit of a role, too, but I’m willing to take the big hit on that one.″

He wouldn’t go into specifics, but said changes are in store for Saturday’s game against Italy. Sounds like Eddie Johnson in, and maybe John O’Brien, too. DaMarcus Beasley appears headed to the bench, and possibly Steve Cherundolo.

The starters Monday got the day off and shuffled around the U.S. team hotel, while the reserves had a light practice. Arena tried to be humorous, but he didn’t take back any of the harsh criticism he leveled after Monday’s debacle.

If the Americans don’t beat Italy on Saturday, they have little chance of advancing, and they’ve never beaten the Azzurri, a three-time champion.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


MONDAY, June 12:

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany _ Well, that was underwhelming. It wasn’t quite the massacre of 16 years ago, when Czechoslovakia outshot the United States 24-7 in a 5-1 rout, the return of the Americans to the World Cup after a 40-year absence.

But this time, the expectations were higher, and the 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic might have been just as disheartening.

About 5,000 U.S. fans filled one corner of the stadium, and about three times as many Czech fans filled the other. Just five minutes in, Jan Koller _ he’s the 6-foot-7 1/2-inch Czech guy who looks like a tower _ headed in a cross for an easy goal, and the Czechs romped.

For all the talk by the Americans about how much they had improved, how their quarterfinal finish in South Korea four years ago wasn’t a fluke, they didn’t look it.

Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.

Now it gets even tougher _ they face three-time champion Italy on Saturday in Kaiserslautern, needing at least a tie to have a realistic chance of advancing to the second round.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


SUNDAY, June 11:

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany _ There are hundreds of Czechs celebrating on the streets of Gelsenkirchen, but only a few dozen Americans seem to be around.

Fans are anticipating the big game, the opener for both teams.

They practiced in the stadium in the afternoon, held news conference and said they are ready. U.S. coach Bruce Arena and captain Claudio Reyna put it best _ they’re sick of talking about the game, they just want the opening whistle to blow.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


SATURDAY, June 10:

HAMBURG, Germany _ Kasey Keller and Bruce Arena faced the media today, and the U.S. news conference began almost on time (1:15 p.m., 15 minutes late). Keller charmed the Spanish media, but didn’t want to try out the German he’s learned in the past 1 1/2 years, saying he thought he’d sound too foolish.

Arena had one of the quotes of the day: ``Goalkeepers are never going to like the ball _ unless it’s square and heavy, and that’s not going to happen.″ Remember, the U.S. coach was a goalkeeper in his playing days, making one appearance for the United States, against Israel in 1973.

After the Americans left in midafternoon for Essen, where they are staying for their Monday opener against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen, it was time to go to Hamburg’s first World Cup game since East Germany upset West Germany in 1974.

Argentina was outplayed for much of the evening but beat Ivory Coast 2-1, taking advantage of shaky defense in the first half for a pair of goals. Ivory Coast, in its orange uniforms, had the better of the play, and Didier Drogba showed he’s one of the world’s great attacking players. But Elephants’ supporters went home disappointed. Great nickname _ when they win, fans serenade the team with ``When the Elephants dance, it’s the ground that suffers.″

As dawn breaks about 3:30 a.m., lots of Argentine fans at the train station _ Haupbanhof _ eating pizza and drinking beer.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum ___

FRIDAY, June 9:

HAMBURG, Germany _ Argentina fans were dancing in the streets tonight and singing. It finally feels like the World Cup!

At midday, about half the U.S. team was available _ scheduled at 1:30 p.m., it started at around 2:30 p.m. I guess German reporters are getting used to the American sense of time.

More focused questions today about how to deal with the Czechs. The opener is just three days away.

When Germany played against Costa Rica in the tournament opener at 6 p.m. (noon EDT), there was lots of honking in the streets whenever Die Deutsche Nationalmannschaft scored.

Tents with food _ brats, lobster, etc. _ and plentiful beer were set up downtown on the Binnenalster lakefront. One guy had a red-yellow-and-black mohawk _ ugly! _ and lots of people had Germany flags wrapped around their shoulders. Long line for the ice cream stand.

Watched the Ecuador-Poland game in an Italian restaurant, Trattoria da Enzo. They’re already looking ahead to the Italy-Ghana game on Monday.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum



HAMBURG, Germany _ In a country known for punctuality, the U.S. team is known for its lack thereof.

The Americans’ 1:30 p.m. news conference began about 2:30 p.m.

While defender Oguchi Onyewu originally was to be available with John O’Brien and coach Bruce Arena, the U.S. Soccer Federation made Onyewu unavailable after reports in Britain that he was at Middlesbrough during the team’s day off Wednesday to discuss a transfer there from Belgium’s Standard Liege. Soccer isn’t exactly major league baseball, where clubhouses are open from 3:35 p.m. to 6:20 p.m. before 7:05 p.m. games.

John O’Brien also was to be available, but he was taken for random drug testing. In the end, Landon Donovan and Pablo Mastroeni joined Arena.

Arena says everyone is fine, no one is hurt. Then again, I have a feeling it’s like the Monty Python movie _ a player could be missing a limb, and Arena would say he’s fine.

There was a fireworks display over Hamburg tonight, and a laser light and water show in the lake, around the blue luminescent pipes forming a soccer goal. There were a few Argentinian fans in their blue-and-white jerseys hanging around Alex, the brasserie by the lakefront. With Hamburg’s first game, Argentina vs. Ivory Coast, set for Sunday night, the town should get hopping Friday, when the Germany vs. Costa Rica opener will be the focus.

_AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


FRANKFURT, Germany _ Imagine how great it is to meet your sporting hero. How great it is to meet all your sporting heroes. Then imagine how it feels for one of them to call you ``fatso.″

It’s OK, I don ’t need any sympathy, I know I need to lose some weight. But welcome to the world of referees, where camaraderie has a sharp edge; rather like that between journalists.

So when I met England’s Graham Poll at a news conference to present World Cup referees, it was no big surprise when he reacted with restrained laughter when I told him I was also a referee, only several levels lower than Poll.

``How do you get around the field then?″ he asked, eyeing up the paunch that I’ve come to regard as a badge of honor earned over the years rather than a hindrance. I have as good as I got, telling Poll I was able to enjoy a beer and bratwurst in Germany while he was munching lettuce to keep fit.

Australian ref Mark Shield, an amiable young man at 32 and already taking part in his second World Cup, was deadpan when discussing my refereeing career. ``Your body’s obviously a temple,″ he teased.

More than 60 referees and their assistants have taken refuge in a plush hotel in woodland near Frankfurt Airport for weeks, receiving guidance from FIFA about their World Cup duties, honing their fitness and doing what referees love doing most _ talking shop.

Yes, we referees are geeks, never happier than when we are buried in the arcane details of the laws of the game. And the world’s top referees, on display by FIFA to meet journalists, mostly stared straight ahead when quizzed, giving prepared replies about how they were going to handle matches.

An Italian referee stared into space when asked about a soccer scandal back home and Benin’s representative giggled nervously when asked if he was worried about acting as fourth official in England’s opening match against Paraguay on Saturday. Most refs looked downright terrified that they were going to put their foot firmly in mouth live on camera.

They didn’t quite know how to deal with their erstwhile colleague Urs Meier of Switzerland, who retired in 2004 after receiving death threats from English supporters furious that he disallowed a goal that cost them victory against Portugal in the European Championship. Meier was at the meeting as a journalist with German TV, encouraging referees to shout greetings in German and to generally behave in a way he would never have dreamed of doing as a referee.

But the worm turns and British TV cornered Meier and again asked him why he had disallowed the goal. ``I’d still give the same decision,″ he said.

The referees were more comfortable with one of their own, even if I was a very junior version of these elite officials. Shield wanted to know what it was like to referee in front of three men and a dog, my usual crowd on Saturday afternoons in English park soccer.

``You know I think I’d be nervous playing in front of a few people. You’d be able to hear what they were saying. When there are 70,000 of them, you just hear a roaring noise,″ he said.

The English team of referees and assistants became most animated when discussing when a player was offside. What part of the body, I asked, had to be in front of the second to last defending player for him to be offside. ``Any part of the body that you can score with,″ said linesman Glen Turner, meaning that just about any part of the body apart from the hands could make a player offside. ``Even the trunk,″ Turner said.

``Footballers have trunks?″ quipped Poll, imitating an elephant to chuckles from his assistants.

That’s refereeing humor.

_AP Writer Simon Haydon


HAMBURG, Germany _ With the sun shining for the second straight day, the U.S. team is given a warm willkommen under the gilded oak ceiling of the Rathaus, Hamburg’s neo-Renaissance Town Hall.

In the ornate Grosser Festsaal (Great Festival Hall), players stood on a platform in front of the Senators’ Estrade as coach Bruce Arena presented Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust with a U.S. jersey.

Von Beust said he hoped the team does well in the tournament and gave it a Hamburg city flag. Food was then passed around. What food, you may ask? Of course, hamburgers!

Players were given a rare day off, and they resume practice tomorrow, just four days before their opener against the Czech Republic.

In the evening, there was a reception near the Fan Fest, by St. Paulli’s ramshackle stadium. Lots of Motown music. While it was warmer during the day, I’m getting the feeling winter never quite ends here at night.

_ AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


TUESDAY, June 6:

NOERDERSTEDT, Germany _ It was meet the Deutsche volk day for the U.S. soccer team, an open haus at Edmund Plambeck Stadion. It’s the home of Eintracht Norderstedt, a regional team in a city of about 70,000 just outside Hamburg, the fifth-largest in the Schleswig-Holstein federal state.

Coming off a 1-0 win over Angola on Monday night in a closed-door scrimmage _ U.S coach Bruce Arena has a penchant for secrecy that rival’s the Pentagon’s _ Americans players ran and had a workout that didn’t reveal much. The team was wary that Czech, Italian and Ghanian spies were in the seats.

Players were mobbed for autographs, getting treated in a rock-star manner they seldom see in the United States. Kasey Keller was given an honorary police hat _ it’s going in his Porsche, in case he’s stopped, as a way to get out of tickets.

It was a sunny day with temperature in the mid-60s _ maybe winter is finally ending in Hamburg, where despite 17 hours a day of daylight, it doesn’t seem to get very warm.

Tommorow is the official greeting at the Rathaus _ City Hall. Don’t think we’ll see Arena or any players in lederhosen.

_ AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum


MONDAY, June 5:

HAMBURG, Germany _ About half the U.S. roster is made available in the hotel. The most notable quote was from DaMarcus Beasley, who said that he wished U.S. coach Bruce Arena told players his lineup five to seven days in advance. (Arena tells players two or three days in advance but doesn’t make the lineup public until an hour before game time).

In the evening, trying to be secretive, the United States played a closed-door game against Angola _ meaning no fans, no media. There weren’t even shirt numbers on the American players.

Brian McBride scored, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation. Then again, since no one else was there to confirm, it could have been Walter Bahr. (He played for the U.S. team in 1950).

Instead of standing outside the stadium, I went to the Trinidad and Tobago game at St. Pauli, where about 20,000 St. Pauli fans watched the home team lose 2-1. There were about 2,000 T&T fans there, who seemed to be quite happy _ and cold in the 50-degree weather.

_AP Sports Writer Ron Blum


SUNDAY, June 4:

HAMBURG, Germany _ The weather has turned downright cool today, and the streets of Hamburg are relatively deserted. Nearly all stores are closed on Sunday, even the bakeries.

Assistant coach Glenn Myernick, playing Ed McMahon to Bruce Arena, subs for the boss at today’s news conference. ``I’m going to give intelligent answers,″ he said in a not-so-veiled zinger.

Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey are the speakers. There are hardly any German media, just most of the corps of U.S. beat writers.

After that, it’s back to the room for writing.

_AP Sports Writer Ron Blum



HAMBURG, Germany _ The 1:30 p.m. U.S. news conference begins 45 minutes late, about par for the U.S. team but perplexing to those from a German culture that prides itself on punctuality and exactness. (People sometimes stare when American reporters, seeing no cars coming in either direction, cross the street against a red light).

Only Arena, Brian McBride and Gregg Berhalter are made available to media today. There is a lot less access to U.S. players thus far than in the previous four World Cups since 1990. A lot fewer media today, perhaps because it’s a three-day weekend.

It’s overcast and chilly in Hamburg _ the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, as it is called officially. Unlike the last few World Cups, there should be some cool weather for games.

_AP Sports Writer Ron Blum


FRIDAY, June 2:

HAMBURG, Germany _ After a lovely 15-minute walk along the lakefront, where a swan convention appears to be in midsession, I head over to the Park Hyatt for the first news conference held by the U.S. team in Germany, with coach Bruce Arena, captain Claudio Reyna (looking not quite awake) and Steve Cherundolo, who plays in Germany for Hannover 96 and speaks fluent German. Arena is affable, filled with his usual sarcasm, mixed in with mocking and a sprinkle of condescension. Not quite sure how: ``We were told we were stupid and crazy and ignorant in Korea, as well, with the families, so we’ll just accept that as being dumb Americans″ translates for those who sprechen Duetsch. Some of the questions are rather whacked out, at least as questions to American athletes go. One questioner was perplexed why players are allowed to see their wives during the tournament. Soccer is definitely a sex-obsessed culture.

Lots of people with earpieces running around the wood-paneled hotel, probably employees of the FBI, CIA and State Department, running up the budget deficit. People entering the hotel have to go through a metal detector, just like they did at the Seoul Marriott four years ago.

Most of the stores down the block outside the Hyatt have World Cup-themed windows, filled with jerseys of the competing teams.

Under the U.S. team hotel is a mall with a coffee shop, Italian cafe and a sushi restaurant, where plates with colored borders circle on a conveyor belt, and costumers are charged based on the amount and color of plates.

_AP Sports Writer Ron Blum


HAMBURG, Germany _ The sky is streaked as dawn breaks. About 60 reporters and photographers have gathered at a remote part of Hamburg Airport, along with police and what appear to be unidentified members of the FBI and CIA. The U.S. national team is arriving in an hour.

When the team arrives, it is greeted by a choir in soccer jerseys, singing soccer songs. Players come off the plate, walk a red carpet and get on a bus.

_AP Sports Writer Ron Blum