GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- For a decade or more, the United States has been preaching that it is ready to play the world's game with the world's elite.
A surprising quarterfinal finish by the U.S. soccer team at the 2002 World Cup boosted that notion. So did the growing flow of top American players to European club teams.
But yesterday's 2006 World Cup opener for the U.S. - in front of a sellout crowd of more than 52,000 - burst that bubble as the Czech Republic routed the Americans, 3-0. The loss left the United States on the brink of elimination after only one game.
If it is defeated by Italy on Saturday, the U.S. will almost certainly be out of the 32-nation tournament that transfixes the sporting globe every four years. The scary thing for American coach Bruce Arena and his team is that Italy has players every bit as good as the Czechs, perhaps even better.
Arena said he felt yesterday that only Claudio Reyna, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu, who played at Sherwood in Montgomery County, played to anywhere near their ability. "Everybody else, the performances weren't good," he said.
In a rare display of anger at certain players, he pointed to their individual shortcomings. "We got nothing out of [DaMarcus] Beasley on the night," he said, adding that Landon Donovan "showed no aggressiveness" and that "not enough players showed initiative."
"We have five days to get it right" before the match against Italy, Reyna said.
The U.S. put its finest possible starting lineup out there yesterday, with eight of the 11 starters currently playing for European teams. Two of the three who do not, Donovan and Eddie Johnson, earn close to $1 million a year in Major League Soccer.
Yet the gulf in class was clear.
The game's opening goal, a dramatic header by 6-foot-8 Jan Koller set the stage as early as the fifth minute. And Pavel Nedved, the Czech Republic's playmaker, toyed with the American defenders throughout the game, bedazzling them with his footwork, his passes, and his speed of thought and play.
Nedved was not alone in lighting up yesterday's match. Tomas Rosicky scored two of the goals after the American defense had failed to close him down.
"It was certainly a very poor start to the game," Arena said. "We were really behind the eight ball from the start."
The U.S. players were slow by comparison with their Czech counterparts, and the type of fire usually shown by Donovan, Convey, Beasley and Brian McBride was strangely absent.
It was as if the U.S. was intimidated, a quality the team has often displayed in Europe in the past.
Reyna, the team's captain and one of the few American players to perform well, hit the left goal post with a shot when the score was still 1-0. Had that ball gone in, things might have been different.
"I'm very disappointed in the performance of a number of our players," Arena said. "The better team won today. ... They punished us for every mistake we made."
The U.S. will have its work cut out in its two remaining first-round games. In the previous two World Cups, the only team to advance from the first round after losing its opener was Turkey, in 2002.
The U.S. appeared overwhelmed. The achievement of 2002 was supposed to have erased the memories of a last-place finish at the 1998 World Cup in France. Now, there are fears that that misery might be repeated.
And the loss yesterday was a bitter one.
Said Donovan, the U.S. team's biggest star: "You just have to put yourselves in the right spots, and we didn't do that. I didn't do that. We were just a little disjointed."
Grahame L. Jones writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.
NEXT FOR U.S. AT WORLD CUP
Yesterday's loss leaves the U.S. in last place with two games left in its difficult group - against Italy on Saturday and against Ghana on June 22.
Wins in both games would not necessarily assure the Americans a spot in the round of 16.
In the previous two World Cups, the only team to advance from the first round after losing its opener was Turkey, in 2002.
U.S. VS. ITALY: Saturday, 3 p.m. TV: 2:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7