Arena seeks answers in final test before qualifying
The new face of the U.S. men's national team is here. The question: Who is it?
The 22 players selected for U.S. Cup (and two notable injured absentees) are the men who will forge the new identity. They might embark on a fresh new chapter by qualifying for the 2002 World Cup finals and dilute the unsavory memory of France '98. Or they might drag American soccer on a catastrophic step backward by becoming the first U.S. team in 12 years to miss the finals.
The individuals were identified when Coach Bruce Arena announced his U.S. Cup roster May 18. The collective persona, however, will be defined over the next few months - beginning with this three-game domestic competition.
"It comes down to what this means to players as they come from their club environments," Arena said. "If it's just a token gesture of support for their country, we're not going to do very well. If this is something they want to take very seriously, we should do well. It's not good enough if it's just important to me."
Position-by-position, not much is certain yet for qualification. Kasey Keller is still the No. 1 goalkeeper, with Brad Friedel not far behind. Claudio Reyna is Arena's first-choice playmaker, and he is the captain.
DIFFERENT LINEUPS. Brian McBride is likely to be engaging in aerial jousts up front, Eddie Lewis is likely to be bending in crosses from the left side, and Eddie Pope, if he can get fully healthy and stay that way, will probably be starting on defense. All else is TBD.
Much of it will be determined by June 11, when the United States steps on the field at Giants Stadium to take on Mexico. Arena is planning to use different lineups for the games against South Africa and Ireland and combine the best performers from each to form the team that plays Mexico.
"Even if you play international games one week at a time, it's still a grueling task, so to think of having to do it within three days' time, you almost have to play with two [different] teams," defender Jeff Agoos said. "I think it sounds like a pretty logical plan. From a player's standpoint, you would always like to have some security, but there are so many quality players in the national team that whoever goes in should be able to do a good job."
LINGERING QUESTION MARKS. While the number of lingering question marks may seem unsettling, it is also a reflection of the team's increased depth. All 22 players are professionals - 11 abroad, 11 here in MLS. In most cases where Arena is undecided, it is not for a lack of options.
At forward, McBride and Cobi Jones appear to be the leading candidates with Joe-Max Moore out because of injury. McBride's total of four goals in 16 U.S. appearances since France is not outstanding, but it's higher than that of any other player. Jones has three since 1998, but Arena said at the Gold Cup in February that the dreadlocked veteran is not a forward, but a flank player. Jovan Kirovski and Ernie Stewart, who are listed as forwards on the U.S. Cup roster, have been used more in midfield. The other two options, Jason Kreis and Ante Razov, are enigmatic and unproven internationally.
In midfield, Chris Armas will probably do the grunt work behind Reyna, but Arena said recently that he wants to find ways to free Reyna even more, which could entail using a 3-5-2 alignment. John O'Brien, who showed great poise on the ball during Olympic qualifying, seems to be the player most suited to play alongside Armas or possibly even overtake him. Perhaps the broadest array of choices is on the flanks. Lewis is favored to earn the left-side spot while Stewart holds the edge of experience on the right over Ben Olsen, Tony Sanneh, Frankie Hejduk and Steve Ralston. Olsen, Hejduk and Ralston can play either side.
Defense is simultaneously the deepest position and the least certain. David Regis and Jeff Agoos battle for the left back spot, with Greg Vanney a possibility. Vanney might also be paired centrally with Robin Fraser, as he is in Los Angeles, but the ankle Fraser sprained May 20 must heal quickly. Gregg Berhalter - currently occupied by Holland's relegation playoffs - and Carlos Llamosa could be another central tandem, but not without answering perhaps the biggest question of the entire lineup: Who is the right back? With Steve Cherundolo's untimely knee injury taking him out of contention, Hejduk or Sanneh could be asked to step in.
POOR FINISHING. Under Arena, the team has 10 wins, 5 losses and 6 ties. It has scored a respectable average of 1.38 goals per game, but its most recent outing was a 2-0 loss in Russia marred by poor finishing.
"It was a frustrating game against Russia, but that's one game out of the past six or seven where we have scored quite a few goals," Jones said. "I don't think it's much of a concern for the players on the team right now. We know that the goals will come."
Arena considers Jones to be one of five true veterans on the team - along with Keller, Reyna, Agoos and Stewart - whom he expects to emerge as leaders. Jones and Agoos began by echoing their coach's sentiment that U.S. Cup carries more weight than the average friendlies.
"We're ready to start getting into the meat of what we train for, and that's qualification," Agoos said. "We've had two years to get ready for this and the players are excited. We want to show that '98 was more of a fluke and show the rest of the world that America has a top-level soccer program."
by Soccer America associate editor Will Kuhns