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Tough draw for U.S. in World Cup soccer

LEIPZIG, Germany—The U.S. men's soccer team will face a tough array of teams in the opening round of next summer's World Cup Finals tournament, including traditional world power Italy and flashy newcomers Ghana and the Czech Republic.

The U.S. team, which reached the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and is ranked No. 8 in the world, found itself placed in what many think will be the second most difficult of eight groups that will compete in the 32-team tournament. The Czech team is ranked No. 2 in the world and Italy is No. 12. Ghana is No. 50.

U.S. coach Bruce Arena said he wasn't worried that his team would face the Czechs in its opening game June 12 in Gelsenkirchen.

"Hey, we opened with one of the top teams in the world in 2002 and we won that one," he said, referring to the U.S. defeat of Portugal that year. The U.S. went on to win its group and play in the quarterfinals that year, the best finish by a U.S. team since 1930.

The toughest group will be composed of the Netherlands (ranked No. 3), Argentina (No. 4), Ivory Coast (No. 41) and Serbia/Montenegro (No. 47).

The team with the best record in each group will advance to quarter-final play in the tournament, which is the most-followed sporting event in the world.

The groups were selected Friday night at a drawing that attracted an international television audience of hundreds of millions. Dozens of sports dignitaries were on hand, including the Brazilian soccer star Pele. Assisting in the selection was Cobi Jones of the United States.

The teams will play a total of 39 games in 12 German cities, beginning with a June 9 match in Munich between Germany and Costa Rica. The tournament will conclude a month later with the final in Berlin.

The recent U.S. World Cup record is one of steady improvement. In 1998, the team finished 32nd of the 32 teams, with losses to Iran, Germany and Yugoslavia. In 2002, the team made it to the quarterfinals, where Germany defeated it, 1-0.

"To the fans, the media, we may be coming into this Cup with higher expectations," Arena said. "But we're coming in with the same expectations we've always had—simply to play well."

The World Cup draw has become something of a Super Bowl halftime show. Comedy acts, cute children, highlights, a magic show and lots of lame inside jokes between celebrity presenters stretched what could have taken 30 minutes into a 90-minute televised variety show.

The draw was in Leipzig, the site of the old communist East German sport university, which produced the Soviet satellite teams and athletes until the country collapsed in 1989.

The International Federation of Association Football—FIFA in its French initials—the group that runs the World Cup, estimated that more than 300 million people watched the draw.

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WORLD CUP GROUPS (current rankings are in parentheses):

Group A: Germany (16), Costa Rica (21), Poland (23) and Ecuador (37).

Group B: England (9), Sweden (14), Paraguay (30), and Trinidad and Tobago (51).

Group C: Netherlands (3), Argentina (4), Ivory Coast (41) and Serbia/Montenegro (47).

Group D: Mexico (7), Portugal (10), Iran (19) and Angola (62).

Group E: United States (8), Czech Republic (2), Italy (12) and Ghana (50).

Group F: Brazil (1), Japan (15), Croatia (20) and Australia (49).

Group G: France (5), South Korea (29), Switzerland (36) and Togo (56).

Group H: Spain (6), Tunisia (28), Saudi Arabia (32) and Ukraine (40).

Source: International Federation of Association Football (FIFA)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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