Teams learn World Cup group foes

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The United States have been drawn into Group E with Italy, Ghana and the Czech Republic for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, as the first round pairings were announced Friday in Leipzig, Germany.

The Stars and Stripes will open the tournament against the Czechs in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on June 12. They'll face Italy in Kaiserslautern on June 17 and Ghana in Nuremberg on June 22. The United States' three CONCACAF rivals learned their first round placement Friday, as well: Mexico will play Iran, Angola and Portugal in Group D; Costa Rica will face Germany, Poland and Ecuador in Group A; and first-time participants Trinidad & Tobago will play England, Paraguay and Sweden in Group B.

The United States have not had success against their group stage opponents in the past. In the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the Red, White and Blue were in a group with both the host nation and Czechoslovakia, losing 1-0 to Italy and 5-1 to Czechoslovakia. In three friendlies against Italy, the U.S. have drawn twice and lost once, the most recent match a 1-0 Italy win in February 2002. The Stars and Stripes haven't played the Czechs outside of the World Cup and have never played Ghana.

The tournament's "group of death" is arguably Group C, which includes traditional powerhouses Argentina and the Netherlands, along with African upstarts Ivory Coast and European side Serbia and Montenegro. Argentina and the Netherlands will meet in the third match of the group stage, meaning the sides could battle with one or both of them needing a result to advance to the knockout phase of the competition.

Elsewhere in the draw, cup-holders Brazil will open their defense on June 13 in Berlin against Group F opponents Croatia and then will face Australia and Japan. Neighbors France and Switzerland meet in the first game of Group G; South Korea's presence in the group, along with unknown Togo, could make for an interesting outcome.

England, considered a favorite by some, meet Paraguay in their Group B opener. They'll also face Sweden, whom they played in the group stage in 2002. They will be the only pair of nations to have met in the group stage in both 2002 and 2006.

Rounding out the draw in Group H are Spain, Ukraine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The Spaniards are looking for the World Cup crown that has always eluded them, while Tunisia look to advance beyond the group stage for the first time and Saudi Arabia and debutants Ukraine are after their first World Cup victories.

Jason Halpin is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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