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In World Cup, US looks to score Czech mark

America is a nation of extraordinary confidence and optimism. It will need those qualities in abundance when the World Cup begins Friday in Germany.

By any conceivable measure, this is the best soccer team that the US has ever sent to a World Cup. Yet the great achievement of this tournament might not be equaling the country's best-ever result as semifinalists - much less winning the whole thing. It might simply be surviving the first round.

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For a nation finally coming into its own on the soccer field - it advanced to the quarterfinals in 2002 and was ranked as high as No. 5 in the world this year - such expectations might seem like a clear step backward. Then you look at the schedule:

June 12: Czech Republic.

June 17: Italy.

Such a lineup might not stir much fear in the halls of NATO, but in the world of soccer, the Czech Republic and Italy hold all the weapons of mass destruction. The Czech Republic has a Houdini in tube socks named Pavel Nedved, a forward of Philistine proportions in Jan Koller, and a coach with a mind as diabolical as any Bond villain. Italy is, well, Italy, where breathing just fills the time between soccer matches. In 1990, the US faced the same teams in the preliminary round of the World Cup. It lost both games.

America has the right to expect more this time around. Unlike 1990, when some of the players were akin to soccer tourists, just collecting the most prestigious stamp of their sporting passports, America now has a team of professionals, bred in the nursery of Major League Soccer and seasoned in Europe's top leagues. There is the slide-rule passing of Bobby Convey, the battering-ram of a head on Brian McBride's shoulders, and the inch-perfect crosses of Eddie Lewis.

Perhaps Americans can even cherish the hope that this versatile squad of interchangeable parts might just find a way to shock the world and advance to the second round. But if Group C - with Argentina, the Netherlands, Serbia & Montenegro, and Ivory Coast - is the so-called "Group of Death," then America's Group E, which also includes the talented but erratic Black Stars of Ghana, might be the "Group of Extreme Discomfort."

Only two teams can advance to the knockout stages; to do so would be an accomplishment as great as any in the country's World Cup lore.

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Admittedly, that lore makes for rather light reading. The US advanced to the semifinals of the first World Cup, but none of the best teams from Europe bothered to come, leaving a large asterisk. In 1950, the US pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in World Cup history, defeating England, 1-0 (but lost its other two games by a total score of 8-3). In the most recent World Cup, it beat Mexico on the way to the quarterfinals.

It is this last accomplishment alone that kindles the American mind to hopes of something more than mere mediocrity. For the better part of a century, America has been openly mocked by the rest of the soccer-loving world. The country's international hegemony, they were told, ended at the border of the soccer field. The last World Cup suggested that, at last, that was changing.

Now this.

Then again, if there was one message from the 2002 World Cup, it is that soccer's world order is under assault. No. 1-ranked France and No. 3-ranked Argentina failed to qualify for the second round. Unheralded Turkey came third. South Korea, which had never before won a World Cup game, finished fourth.

There will be no better measuring stick than these next few days. By the standards of American soccer, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley warrant their Sports Illustrated cover this week. But do they warrant mention with the likes of Group E colleagues Nedved and Francesco Totti and Michael Essien? Did America reach the No. 5 global ranking just because it plays in a weak region, or is it now truly a peer among the world's best soccer nations?

The answers begin Monday.