DORTMUND, Germany -- Bruce Arena must be praying to the soccer gods these days that every one of his players -- especially the key ones -- remains healthy when the U.S. national team returns to Germany come June.
After Wednesday night's 4-1 debacle here, you certainly couldn't blame Arena if he did some extra praying. The U.S. simply cannot afford to lose any key players if the U.S. has any serious designs of advancing out of the first round against the likes of the Czech Republic and Italy in Group E.
Germany, a team that was struggling in its own right recently (it had its own version of a 4-1 disaster -- a loss to Italy on March 1) exposed the Americans' lack of depth at midfield, the forward line, and especially on defense.
These German players, not exactly household names around the world in the tradition of predecessors Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthaeus, made the veterans such as Gregg Berhalter and Jimmy Conrad look like a first-time international at times. Arena probably expected better from both. Berhalter plays for Energie Cottbus and is a veteran of the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal finish and Conrad, an all-star fullback with the Kansas City Wizards, was MLS Defender of the Year in 2005.
If anything, we were reminded of one important thing -- it's one thing to play in CONCACAF, it's totally another to play against top European teams in their own backyard. It's not a giant step; it's like two giant steps.
Germany obviously needed this game much more than the U.S. did. German coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who resides in Southern California, reportedly had his head on the line.
The Bild, which has the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in Germany, ran a headline that asked this question:
"Will he be fired if he loses today? Most important for Klinsy."
Rumors were flying that former Bayern Munich coach Ottmar Hitzfeld was ready to step in and take over the coaching reins, giving Klinsmann a permanent vacation in America. But those rumors and thoughts appear to have been abated now (there also are rumors that Hitzfeld will take Klinsmann's place after the World Cup regardless of what transpires).
Now, losing 4-1 to Germany in Germany is not the end of the world, especially when the backbone of the team was nowhere near Westfalenstadion.
Among the missing were star midfielders Landon Donovan (right calf strain) and DaMarcus Beasley (club commitments), forward Brian McBride (club commitments) and defenders Oguchi Onyewu (club commitments) and Eddie Pope (bad back).
Claudio Reyna learned on Wednesday that his injured shoulder would keep him out for three to four weeks, which could very well mean he won't don the Manchester City jersey again this season and put him straight into training camp.
So Arena is hoping and could very well be praying for a quick return by any of those players.
That's one major reason why many writers here were not hard on the U.S. after the rout, which tied a pair of lows during Arena's tenure with the national team. The four goals allowed and three-goal margin of defeat equaled the Americans' worst performances under Arena. It wasn't the real first team. Had Donovan and Co. been available, that's debatable. The loss was also a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in sports.
Just a scant three weeks ago, I was writing about the significance of a rare victory in Europe -- remember that 1-0 triumph over Poland? Clint Dempsey, who scored the lone goal in that match on a freak play, wasn't even on the U.S. roster for this one. He was served a two-week suspension imposed by his club team, the New England Revolution, for fighting with Joey Franchino in practice.
Heck, things can change dramatically from half to half.
The U.S. managed to survive the opening half in one piece on Wednesday and then things started falling apart just 21 seconds into the second half, as everything but the stadium roof collapsed on the Americans.
During his postgame press conference, Arena was correct in another matter. A number of players who started on Wednesday won't be on the roster come June. The game certainly wasn't a total waste. Any doubts Arena might have had about a player has been solidified. He won't discuss it in public, at least not before he explains to those players why they won't make the final cut.
"I don't think too many players played their way onto the roster tonight," he said. "There were some solid performances. But certainly nothing that would make a strong case for a variety of players."
Among the players whose bubble may pop soon are Brian Ching, the early hero of the CONCACAF qualifiers who was an invisible man, and midfielder Chris Klein, who sometimes looked lost out there. Conrad's status is doubtful too, although he might still be alive and well in the World Cup sweepstakes because Arena might be considering adding some extra depth on defense.
We're just going to have to wait another three weeks to find out who is in the mix. That's when the U.S. hosts Jamaica in Cary, N.C., on April 11.
Kasey Keller, 6 -- The goals weren't his fault
Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- A solid performance
Jimmy Conrad, 3 -- A second half to forget
Gregg Berhalter, 3.5 -- Ditto
Corey Gibbs, 5 -- Improved as the game went on
Bobby Convey, 5 -- Led the attack, but struggled on defense
Kerry Zavagnin, 4 -- Struggled again in Europe
Pablo Mastroeni, 5 -- Too many fires to put out
Josh Wolff, NR -- Substituted early due to injury
Eddie Johnson, 4 -- Can he score against only CONCACAF opposition?
Brian Ching, 3 -- Except for one shot, the invisible man
Chris Klein, 3 -- Looked lost out there at times
Ben Olsen, NR
Heath Pearce, NR
Taylor Twellman, NR
Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for the New York Daily News, also is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at Soccerwriter516@aol.com.