NEW YORK (AP) – The first round of the 2006 World Cup looks a lot like 1990 to the United States.

The Americans were drawn Friday into a difficult first-round group for next year’s tournament in Germany. They’ll open June 12 against the Czech Republic, the world’s second-ranked team. Next up is three-time champion Italy on June 17, followed by four-time African champion Ghana on June 22.

Back at the 1990 tournament in Italy, a nervous bunch of post-college all-stars was beat up 5-1 by Czechoslovakia in the Americans’ first World Cup appearance in 40 years. Then they lost 1-0 to the Italians in Rome before exiting with a 2-1 loss to Austria.

“I sat in the stands in Italy and shook my head,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said following the draw in Leipzig. “And not to disrespect the performance of our players, but it was so obvious to me at that point in time that we had a long way to go, and 16 years later we get to replay these matches. So it will be interesting to see where we are.”

The Americans have never beaten any of their three opponents, and their group is the only one with three nations among the top 12 in the FIFA world rankings: the Czechs are second, the Americans eighth and the Italians 12th. They’re 0-3-2 against Italy, never played Ghana and had just that one match against the Czechs. British bookmaker William Hill increased the U.S. odds from 80-1 to 100-1 after the draw.

“It certainly looks like the toughest group,” defender Eddie Lewis said.

Still, after beating Portugal and Mexico at the 2002 World Cup and outplaying Germany for much of a 1-0 quarterfinal loss, American players are confident. The only holdover from the 1990 team in goalkeeper Kasey Keller, voted 2005 U.S. player of the year.

“If you are Italy or Czech, you can’t take the U.S. or Ghana for granted,” midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said.

Players were dispersed around the United States and Europe as they watched the draw ceremony on television.

“I think it’s a group where we can have a lot of success,” forward Eddie Johnson said. “I think we can go in with great confidence and match up really well.”

In FIFA’s system for the draw, based on performances in the last two World Cup and the rankings, the Americans missed being one of the eight seeded teams by one point.

The Czechs advanced to the 2004 European Championship semifinals before losing to Greece 1-0 in overtime and were the top-scoring European team in qualifying with 37 goals.

Led by Pavel Nedved, the 2003 European player of the year, they have a strong corps that includes Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros and Vladimir Smicer. Jan Koller, second in European qualifying with nine goals, may miss the tournament after tearing knee ligaments in September.

Italy, known as the Azzurri, has a fan base that expects a World Cup title from an underachieving team that hasn’t won the Cup since 1982.

Ghana, nicknamed the Black Stars, is in the World Cup for the first time, but was African champion in 1963, 1965, 1978 and 1982 and outscored opponents 24-4 in qualifying.

Michael Essien, a tough-tackling midfielder who plays for Chelsea, is among the five finalists for African player of the year.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” Ghana coach Ratomir Dujkovic said. “This is going to be big pressure on my players.”

As the draw unfolded, the pot the Americans were in went last.

“I was getting a bit antsy,” Lewis said.

They could have wound up playing Germany in the tournament opener of in a group with Argentina and the Netherlands.

“I really didn’t want to play in Brazil’s group and probably not in Argentina’s group and in some ways maybe not in Germany’s group,” he said. “So for the most part, those wishes were met. However, we do know it’s going to be difficult.”

Reyna thinks the other teams will be concerned about handing the U.S. players.

“We’ve earned respect from the last appearance in the World Cup and our current ranking,” he said. “We have good attacking players. We’ve been very good defensively of late. It’s a very good possibility as well that teams are going to be worrying about us.”

If the U.S. team advances to the second round, it most likely would play defending champion Brazil, Croatia or Australia. What will he do if the Americans get past the first round?

“I’ll be drinking in the hotel bar,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.