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U.S. Under-23s Begin Journey Home, Stopping to Watch MNT vs. Italy

"ARRIVEDERCI, MESSINA": After a late game last night, most of the team relished the chance to sleep in before having their last meal at the Hotel Royal Palace at Noon. The team loaded up the bus and headed South to Catania, with a planned pitstop to tour the beach-front city of Taormina.  The 45-minute bus drive out of Messina, which is located at the very Northeast of the island of Sicily, was stunning, with the Mediterranean Sea looking electric blue under the sunlight. Upon originally arriving in Messina, the team was surprised to realize that the land that looked like just a very wide river away was in fact the Italian mainland (specifically, the city of Reggio de Callabria located at the tip of the "boot" of the mainland of Italy). But as small of a gap between Italy and Sicily, a dozen plans to build a bridge to connect the two bodies have all met with some sort of problem, according to team liason Carlo Tramotozzi. For most of the bus ride, the view on the left side of the bus looked much like it does driving on Pacific Coast Highway up the coast of California from Los Angeles to Malibu and onward. With miles of surf and beaches in the foreground and the Italian mainland in the background, there was no sleeping on the trip, only players gazing out the windows until making the next stop in Taormina.

TAORMINA: "THE FT. LAUDERDALE OF SICILY": That was the comparison that our tour guide related to the team about the beautiful coastal city of Taormina, which is located almost halfway from Messina to Catania. Traveling from the highway up into the mountains produced some stunning views up and down the coast of Sicily, furthering the comparisons to Malibu. At a certain altitude, the team had to jump off its normal large bus and grab a smaller shuttle to navigate the rest of the way up into Taormina's Old Town area, which is known for its expensive stores and the city's oldest churches. Players and staff had a little over an hour to spend walking the stone streets, dodging the many Vespa scooters and tiny new SmartCars, snapping pictures of the quaint neighborhood and some of its views, and finally stopping for a gelati (ice cream) before heading back down to the bus to Catania.

IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? On the second leg of the trip to Catania, the team bus was confronted with a messy, three-car accident that had occurred on the two-lane highway. With a medical staff on board, the driver quickly pulled over to assist. Team doctor Dan Romanelli and trainer Scott Piehl both hopped off and rushed back to provide any assistance possible, but an ambulance had just joined the Polizia (Italian police) at the scene.

ON TO CATANIA: With crisis averted, it was back on the road to complete the remaining 40-minute drive to the much larger coastal city of Catania, where the U.S. Men's National Team has been stationed since Sunday afternoon in preparation for tonight's match versus Italy at 2:45 p.m. ET (live on ESPN). Just outside of Taormina behind a mountain range lies the active volcano Etna, which is continuously smoking after erupting and damaging much of the area around Taormina last summer. The smoldering mountain provided a unusual distraction for much of the end of the trip.

U.S. UNDER-23 MEN FALL 2-0 TO OLDER, EXPERIENCED ITALY UNDER-21 SQUAD TO CLOSE OUT TWO-WEEK EUROPEAN TOUR: The U.S. Under-23 Men's National Team fell 2-0 to an older and more experienced Italian Under-21 MNT last night at "G. Celeste" Community Stadium in Messina, Italy. The match concludes the U.S. team's two-week foreign tour of Portugal and Italy in which they posted a 1-1-1 international record against three of the top youth national teams in Europe. "Innocent mistakes get punished at good levels. On both goals tonight, what started out as innocent giveaways, turned into the two goals in the game," said U.S. U-23 MNT head coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick. "The difference in the game clearly was thier daily experience as pros in one of the best leagues in the world, compared to up-and-coming young pros of U.S. Soccer." Although billed as Italy's Under-21 Men's National Team, the average age across their 20-man roster was 21.4 years and included 16 players that are 21 years or older.  On the other end, officially the U.S. Under-23 MNT, the squad's average as is 19.6 years, with not a single player on their roster who is 21. The Under-23 MNT will have a chance to represent the USA at the 2004 Olympics in Greece.

YI, AKWARI STAY IN ITALY, SIGN WITH ITALIAN SERIE C1 CLUB NOCERINA: This U-23 MNT trip to Italy has come at a convenient time for defenders Alex Yi and Nelson Akwari, who recently signed with Italian Serie C1 professional club Nocerina. The two UCLA sophomores, who both competed on the U.S. U-17 and U-20 World Championship teams in 1999 and 2001, respectively, will depart tomorrow for Nocera as the rest of the team heads to the United States by way of Rome.

ITALIAN 101: THE BASICS: Well-traveled and multi-lingual U.S. Under-23 MNT equipment manager Rob Stelzer, who currently resides in Berlin, Germany, spent part of the bus ride to Taormina helping the players learn some of the basic Italian words and phrases that could help them get through the day, albeit the day before the team leaves back to the States. Maybe they can use it in the airport tomorrow, as the team travels from Catania to Rome, then from Rome to JFK International Airport before breaking up for individual flights to homes/clubs/colleges all over the country: Below is a brief glossary of basic Italian words and phrases:
Ciao - "Hello"
Arrivederci - "Goodbye"
Buongiorno - "Good morning"
Grazie - "Thank You"
Prego - "Of course" or "No problem"
Scusi - "Sorry" or "Excuse me."
Per fevore - "Please"

"Did you go to a barber shop or to the butcher?"
- Team liason Carlo Trammotozzi, commenting on the stylishly short and spiky haircut that goalkeeper D.J. Countess received during the team's hour-long visit to Taormina.

"I hope you didn't pay more than five Euros for that."
- U.S. U-23 MNT coordinator Erik Liekoski, adding his two cents about D.J.'s haircut [Editor's Note: 5 Euros is equivalent to about $4 U.S.]