KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany (AP) -- They lumbered from end to end, desperate to stop the blue surge of Italian players and salvage their World Cup.
Two U.S. players had been ejected. What could have been the winning goal was disallowed.
And in the end, with players dropping to the field in exhaustion, the United States managed a wild 1-1 tie Saturday night that gave the Americans their first World Cup point in Europe and a chance to advance to the tournament's second round.
They'll need a win and some help, but the Americans are still players on the World Cup stage. Even if they needed an own-goal to tie the Italians.
"This team is alive, and that's where we wanted to be," goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "It was a total team effort and those guys bled today for our country and our team."
He wasn't exaggerating.
Forward Brian McBride had three stitches on one cheek from a vicious elbow. Jimmy Conrad had cotton stuffed up his nose. A bandage covered where Landon Donovan received intravenous fluid. Jimmy Conrad had cotton stuffed up his nose, also the result of an elbow, and played part of the game with vision so blurry he had to ask a teammate whether he was bleeding
Jorge Larrionda, the Uruguayan referee who handed out three red cards in Saturday's game between the United States and Italy, was suspended for six months in 2002 by his country's soccer authorities.
Larrionda was one of five referees to be suspended for "irregularities," a decision that prevented them from officiating in local or international matches.
The suspensions reportedly were connected with accusations of corruption between members of rival unions that represent Uruguay's match officials.
"A roller-coaster," Clint Dempsey called it.
Harshly criticized for lackluster and nervous play in their opener, the Americans came out strong, winning the ball and living in Italy's half of the field.
But then Alberto Gilardino got behind the U.S. defense and headed Andrea Pirlo's free kick past Keller in the 22nd minute. The Americans tied the score in the 27th when Italy defender Cristian Zaccardo knocked Bobby Convey's free kick into the net as he tried to clear the ball before it reached McBride.
Then Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda began flashing red cards at a pace seldom seen in World Cup play.
First it was Italy's Daniele De Rossi, just a minute after the Americans tied it. After the game he apologized for an elbow that split McBride's left cheek. But after playing with a man advantage for 17 minutes, it was the Americans who were seeing red.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni was sent to the locker room in the 45th minute for a cleats-up tackle on Pirlo.
"I think that foul anywhere in the world is a yellow card," Mastroeni said.
Coming out of the locker room 10 against 10, it took just two minutes of the second half for defender Eddie Pope to get his second yellow card of the game for a tackle in which he got the ball first, then took down Gilardino.
"I thought it definitely was a harsh yellow," Pope said. "I thought the first yellow was harsh, as well. He was holding me the whole time."
The United States had some history with Larrionda, who awarded a penalty kick against the Americans in the 2003 Confederations Cup during a chippy match against Turkey. The Americans outfouled the Italians 24-13.
"I think the ref ruined the game for us because we looked like the better team and we wanted to win," captain Claudio Reyna said. "Even with nine men, we pushed at the right times."
But they were also on their heels: Keller saved the Americans with a pair of point-blank stops on Alessandro Del Piero in the final 20 minutes.
When the whistle blew, the U.S. players went to a corner of the field to salute the thousands of fans in red, white and blue who made a stadium near several U.S. military bases feel like a home field.
"They were behind us, in front us, to the side of us. They were everywhere," defender Oguchi Onyewu said. "It definitely lifted us and gave us that extra push."
With just nine men, they needed it. It was just the fourth time there have been three red cards in a World Cup match, the first since South Africa-Denmark in 1998.
"We gave everything, but it was difficult after the second red card," Reyna said. "We gave everything at the end to get a point."
Entering the day, it appeared the Americans would need a win. But in the earlier game, Ghana upset the Czechs 2-0. The result complicated a group that after the first games seemed clear.
Italy (1-0-1) leads with four points, one ahead of the Czechs and Ghana (both 1-1) and three ahead of the Americans (0-1-1).
For the United States to reach the round of 16, it must win, coupled with an Italian victory over the Czechs. Or Italy would have to tie the Czechs along with a U.S. victory by at least four goals -- and maybe more. The U.S. team also could advance if Italy loses, depending on how the Americans fare in tiebreakers.
Italy has incentive to beat the Czechs -- the group's second-place team likely will face Brazil, a challenge the United States gladly would accept right now.
"Perhaps four points for the U.S. team will be good enough to get out of the group," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.
Pope and Mastroeni will miss Thursday's game against Ghana. McBride, who has twice had plastic surgery to repair soccer injuries, said he's fine to play.
"Brian has, I think, a few titanium plates in his face already," Keller said, "so you know he's going to stick his head in places where most people would really prefer not to."
The draw was a milestone in U.S. soccer history. The Americans were 0-8 in World Cup games played in Europe, and they had never gotten even a single point in Europe in any match against the big five nations of Italy, England, Germany, Spain and France.
By the end, players' legs were heavy from running in the wide-open space created by all the red cards. The United States, which brought on Conrad after Pope was sent off, ended the game in a formation of four defenders, three midfielders and one forward. Italy used three forwards to apply pressure.
But thanks greatly to Keller, the United States didn't buckle.
For a few brief seconds, it even appeared the United States had gone ahead in the 66th minute, when second-half sub DaMarcus Beasley slotted the ball in off goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. But with Arena pumping an arm on the sideline, the whistle blew for an offside call on McBride, who had screened Buffon.
Keller then made the save of the night, jumping to his right to palm away a short shot by a wide-open Del Piero, who had gotten a chip from Pirlo. Keller made another outstanding stop on Del Piero in the 79th.
"It was," Keller said, "a crazy game."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press