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Czechs manhandle US in World Cup tune-up match

US goes down in Hartford before World Cup. A harbinger of things to come in South Africa?

If you’re not looking for the solace of good ideas, but rather disturbing patterns, one was certainly evident in Hartford. The Americans are generally regarded as a solid side that has earned an inflated world ranking — currently 14th in the world to the Czech’s 33rd — by dominating a relatively weak region.

The Americans, however, have had occasional success going up against the world’s soccer elite. But the major American upsets have come against smaller teams with offenses that revolve around short passing attacks: Colombia in the 1994 World Cup; Portugal and Mexico in the 2002 World Cup; and Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa.

However in World Cup play, European teams that boast size and a physical approach to the game have consistently manhandled the Americans. And there are a string of losses to prove the point: Czechoslovakia (5-1) in World Cup 1990; Romania (1-0) in ’94; Germany (2-0) and Yugoslavia in ’98 (1-0); Poland (3-1) and Germany (1-0) in ’02; and, of course the Czechs (3-0) in ’06. If you’re keeping a running tally … well, really best not to.

Last December American fans rejoiced over the Yanks’ relatively weak World Cup draw, envisioning a clear path to the second round. But after the England game, the U.S. will meet Slovenia, exactly the kind of tough, physical, defensive-minded side that gives it fits. Playing in one of Europe’s toughest qualifying groups, Slovenia surrendered only four goals in 10 games and, in its make-or-break playoff for South Africa, shut out a high-powered Russian team. Even Algeria, regarded by many as the weakest of the five African teams to emerge from qualification, tends to play more like the rugged European teams than the speedy, attack-minded West Africans (Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon).

The U.S. team has another challenging “friendly” this week — Saturday night in Philadelphia against a high-ranking, European non-Cup qualifier, Turkey — and undoubtedly its lineup will more resemble that which will take the field in South Africa. American boosters can only hope that this unit will demonstrate more cohesion and a sense of urgency for team rather than individual jobs.

Of course, if the Americans reach the second round of the World Cup, or even if they simply play well, the Czech game will be a forgotten footnote to the campaign. But if the weaknesses so apparent last night emerge as the team’s undoing in South Africa, the Czech game will be recalled as the beginning of the end. The alliterative “Harbinger in Hartford” is very hard to resist.