NEW YORK — Eddie Johnson was sweating, and it had nothing to do with the opponents the United States had drawn for next year's World Cup.

One of the brash young American soccer players, he watched Friday's draw in a gym, where he was working out as he rehabilitates from a toe injury that sidelined him for most of this year. He wasn't fazed when the United States wound up in a group with Italy.

"I don't think it's a team as strong as they've been in the past," he said. "Italian soccer isn't as good as it used to be."

Don't be too surprised if Italians have tears in their tiramisu after they play the Americans on June 17.

When the United States gets to Germany next year, it opens against the Czech Republic on June 12, plays the Italians five days later and closes the first round against Ghana on June 22. After reaching the quarterfinals in 2002, the Americans have a difficult but not impossible path to the second round, where they could wind up playing defending champion Brazil.

Johnson, a 21-year-old forward who scored eight goals in his first eight games with the national team, exemplifies the attitude of an American team that believes it can beat anyone.

Back in 1990, when the United States reached the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, it drew Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria as first-round opponents in Italy. Bob Gansler, then the U.S. coach, didn't think his team had much of a chance against the Azzurri, as the Italian team is known.

"One can always dream," Gansler said the day of that draw, "but that's exactly what that would be. To beat them would be monumental."

That U.S. team was booted off the field, losing those three games 5-1, 1-0 and 2-1, scores closer than the games really were.

But the Italian national team has struggled these days, not even making the second round of last year's European Championship, and Italy's Serie A top domestic league is dominated by two teams filled with foreigners, Juventus and AC Milan. Only recently have young players such as Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino been brought in.

With the Czech Republic, the Americans catch a break. Jan Koller, the 6-foot-6 forward whose nine goals were second in qualifying, might miss the tournament because of a knee injury. If he plays, he will be coming off a lengthy layoff. Still, the Czechs will cause trouble for the U.S. team — they have strong offensive players in Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky, Milan Baros and Vladimir Smicer.

And Ghana, known as the Black Stars, has tough-tackling Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien, among the five finalists for African player of the year.

Sixteen years later, the Americans have progressed so much that current coach Bruce Arena's attitude is a generation removed from Gansler's.

"I'm optimistic that we can qualify out of the group, regardless of what anyone else thinks," Arena said. "I think we're capable of playing with any team in the world."

Clint Dempsey, a 22-year-old midfielder, recorded the draw in Nacogdoches, Texas, and didn't know the Americans' opponents until he got home and watched. He is pushing himself to get ready.

"I've got to crawl before I can walk," he said. "I'm just trying to get on the team. That's my main focus. I'm busting my butt out here in Texas just getting ready for the (training) camp in January."

In South Korea three years ago, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were 20-year-old kids just getting comfortable on the U.S. team. Their youth provided a spark and combined with veterans to push the Americans to their best showing since 1930.

Johnson, Dempsey and 6-foot-4 defender Oguchi Onyewu could fill similar roles this time, combining with the old guard — Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the last remaining player from the 1990 team.

"A lot of people are saying how difficult it is for us," said midfielder Steve Ralston, Dempsey's teammate on the New England Revolution. "But people felt like that the last World Cup when we drew Portugal the first game and then look what happened — you win that game and you're going to ride that momentum through."