KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- U.S. national team manager Bruce Arena is renowned as a motivator, man manager, and unofficial psychologist to his players, and following the Americans' comprehensive defeat to the Czech Republic, the team was in dire need of some serious couch time. Or an exorcist, because the extent to which the U.S. can banish Monday's demons will go far in determining if they can pull off the unthinkable and defeat Italy on Saturday.
"This is a World Cup, not club soccer or whatever," said Arena. "This is the moment to shine and step up and show what you're about. I think our guys are ready to respond and give a good effort."
Captain Claudio Reyna also has been going out of his way in recent days to judge the mood of the team, and said at Friday's press conference that he likes what he has seen.
"I spoke to a lot of different guys to make sure how they were," said Reyna. "But everyone seemed real relaxed and handled the loss well. When we got back to training, it was intense. Everyone was focused. It was easy for me. There was no one who was pouting around. Everyone was ready to go, ready to play."
The development is encouraging because they will be taking on an Italian team that is every bit as formidable as the Czech side they saw on Monday. Never mind the furor over the match-fixing scandal that is laying waste to the boardrooms of various Italian clubs. Head coach Marcello Lippi is convinced that the scandal is having no impact on his players, especially now that the World Cup has started.
"In the beginning it wasn't very pleasant," said Lippi through a translator. "But everyone replied to the questions, and after 10 days, we started to speak about soccer. It hasn't disturbed anything at all."
That the Italians won't be distracted makes the Americans' task even more difficult, especially since the game is one the U.S. must win. A tie, while not eliminating the Yanks mathematically, would set up an unlikely scenario in which the U.S. would have to beat Ghana, Italy would have to lose to the Czechs, while at the same time reversing the five-point gap on goal difference that exists between the U.S. and Italy.
"We have to try and win the game," Arena added. "The starting point is obviously, to do the exact opposite of what we did the other day -- that's not give up an early goal."
That could prove difficult given the attacking weapons that the Italians have at their disposal. Unlike the Czechs, whose primary strength is in their midfield, the Italians potency lies in their forward tandem of Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino, as well as playmaker Francesco Totti.
Toni, described by Arena as, "a beast," will present just as much of a physical challenge to the U.S. as Czech forward Jan Koller did. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, the Fiorentina striker combines his immense frame and running ability with a killer instinct that saw him lead the Italian Serie A with 31 goals. Gilardino is a classic "box" player who excels with his back to goal and has great ability to find space in the penalty area.
There was a time when it was thought that Toni and Gilardino were too similar in style to be paired with one another, but in the last few months, they've hit upon a deadly partnership that has Arena calling them "among the best tandem of strikers in the World Cup." Reyna agreed.
"They're predators," said Reyna of the Italian strikers. "You give them one chance, if they're there, they'll put it away."
The player tasked with feeding the frontrunners will be Totti, who is still rounding into form after sustaining a fractured ankle in February. But while the Roma midfielder might still be short of his best, he still adds a key element of unpredictability to the Italian attack, bringing a combination of touch and vision that makes him the Italian equivalent of Ronaldinho.
And it's not as if those are the only three players capable of delivering on the offensive end. Andrea Pirlo announced his arrival at the World Cup with a cracking goal in Italy's 2-0 defeat of Ghana. The likes of Simone Perrotta and Daniele De Rossi did their bit as well, and more reinforcements are on the way. According to Lippi, it now looks as though the injured fullback Gianluca Zambrotta will be available, as will midfielder and resident pit bull Gennaro Gattuso, although it's not clear if they will start.
That means another huge challenge for the American defense, one that defended well in stretches on Monday, but was also guilty of some critical breakdowns. At this point, it remains to be seen what, if any, changes Arena will make from a personnel standpoint (Carlos Bocanegra anyone?) or whether he goes with three or four defenders in the back.
But while a much improved performance will be required from everyone on the backline, a better defensive effort will be needed further up field as well. Against the Czechs, the Americans gave way too much space to players like Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky, a tendency that was duly punished on the second and third goals. And if the likes of Totti and Pirlo are given the time and freedom to do what they please, it will render any adjustments on the American end worthless.
Of course, the best way to nullify the Italian attack is to possess the ball, which is another area that the U.S. will need to beef up significantly. The inclusion of John O'Brien should help in this regard, and better movement off the ball, particularly from Landon Donovan, will also aid the American cause. Reyna adds that more variety in attack is also a necessity.
"Everyone has to be brave and want the ball," said Reyna. "But we also need to be patient at times and mix up our game. I think going through middle against Italy is going to be difficult. I think it's normal in any game that the ability to get width, get crosses in, and [win] set pieces decides games. That's not really a secret. We'll have to create things from out wide."
Given how the Italians manage the game, it's possible that the U.S. could enjoy some good spells of possession. But with the Italian backline superbly led by the likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, you can bet that not only will Italy be very difficult to break down, but they'll be conservative in their defensive approach as well.
"The Italians are a very smart team," added Arena. "Regardless of who they are playing, they are not going to get caught with insufficient numbers in defending. They are going to be selective as to how they attack you, but at all times safety-first."
For that reason, it will be imperative that the U.S. is aggressive, but not reckless in attack.
"We have 90 minutes to try and win the game, and not try to win it in the first two minutes or lose it in the first two minutes," added Reyna. "We're not going to get 20 chances on goal. If we get one, we have to make sure we do everything we can to score."
The U.S. also will be hoping that some intangibles work in their favor, one of those being that the Italians will look past the U.S. and ahead to their match with the Czechs. The U.S. side is also something of a mystery to the Italians. Several players told Reuters that they the only player they could identify was Reyna, which didn't bother the U.S. captain in the slightest.
"It's fine," said Reyna. "It's a challenge for our players that hopefully [Italy] will remember them after the game."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com