The Kaiser had to say he's sorry, and Gregg Berhalter is one reason why.
Franz Beckenbauer - German World Cup hero of the past and outspoken sage of the present - announced at the halfway mark of the Bundesliga season that Energie Cottbus was a ''hopeless case'' and would for sure drop to the Second Division.
Beckenbauer's prediction was hardly controversial when he made it. Cottbus was mired in last place, 10 points deep in the relegation zone, and had given up a league-high 38 goals.
When Berhalter joined the team in August, Cottbus had played only three games but was already in dire straits. The 29-year-old American defender's official club bio reads: ''Had he arrived in Cottbus with only one leg and three toes, he still would have been greeted with open arms by a team desperate for defensive stability after conceding 10 goals in three games.''
Cottbus celebrated its first win in Berhalter's first start, but success proved fleeting for him and the club.
''I was playing out of position - at the left back and defensive midfielder,'' says Berhalter, a lifelong central defender who was benched for the last four games before the winter break. ''Plus, I wasn't playing well.''
Coach Eduard Geyer agreed Berhalter wasn't in peak form, but in an interview with the Lausitzer Rundschau, as Geyer conveyed his disappointment with his new players, he said, ''Berhalter must be judged differently because, due to the World Cup, he came to us with almost no rest.''
Geyer fiddled with his lineup through the first 17 games, using 27 different players, as the team managed two wins and four ties. Shopping for reinforcements was out of the question for the cash-strapped club, and Beckenbauer wasn't alone penciling in Cottbus among the three teams that would drop out of the 18-team First Division.
''Going into the second half of the season, we were given a 98 percent chance of getting relegated,'' says Berhalter.
But an amazing transformation took place over the six-week winter break. Cottbus held camp in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Geyer spent much of the time implementing a formation change - from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2. No one welcomed the adjustment more than Berhalter, who played in the central defense of a four-man backline for the U.S. national team and for English First Division team Crystal Palace, his previous club.
''The Germans have a great history of using the libero,'' says Berhalter. ''So even though some teams, like Bayern, have gone to the 4-4-2, it's still a big deal.''
Coaches and teammates looked to Berhalter for guidance.
''I had a lot of input in how we would play,'' Berhalter says. ''We worked very hard over the break on the new formation. Because we're one of the league's biggest underdogs, every team attacks us in waves. But any team can make itself difficult to breakdown if it's solid and well-organized in defense.''
Cottbus, a small club from the former East Germany, spent 1991-97 in the amateur ranks and 1997-2000 in the Second Division. It has been a prime relegation candidate during all three of its First Division seasons. Upon its return from the Middle East training camp, Cottbus started playing as if it might once again defy the odds.
It opened with a 3-0 win over last season's Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League runner-up Bayer Leverkusen. Three more wins and a 0-0 tied followed.
German daily Bild wrote, ''U.S. boy Berhalter playing strong as a bear,'' and noted that Cottbus owed thanks to Germany coach Rudi Voeller, who had recommended Berhalter to Geyer based on Berhalter's performance in the U.S. quarterfinal loss to Germany at the 2002 World Cup.
Kicker magazine called Berhalter Cottbus' ''genuine winner'' and was impressed by his ability to marshal the defense in three languages - ''German and English, and Portuguese when Brazilian Vragel da Silva is in the lineup.''
''We gave up only one goal,'' says Berhalter. ''We were staying compact and looking for the counterattack. We've got speed up front, and a few passes in really fast counterattacks were getting us the goals.''
After the five-game unbeaten streak, and with only an inferior goal difference keeping it in the relegation zone, Cottbus faced runaway leader Bayern Munich, whose president is Beckenbauer. He issued his apology in the game program: ''Sorry Cottbus! Rarely have I been so mistaken. Any one who's arrogant when they play Cottbus will be ruthlessly punished.''
Bayern won, 2-0. Still, 17th-place Cottbus remained only three points behind the 12th-place team going into the 24th game of the season. Also in the struggle against relegation are Berhalter's World Cup 2002 teammates, Tony Sanneh (Nuremberg) and Steve Cherundolo (Hannover).
''Yeah, we're all fighting for survival,'' Berhalter says.
by Soccer America Executive Editor Mike Woitalla