U.S. Soccer Beat: Age creeps into U.S. defense

College buddies provide intriguing option

FOXBORO, MASS. - The flashing boots and fiery grimaces of Joe-Max Moore highlighted the proceedings Aug. 16 at Foxboro Stadium, yet Coach Bruce Arena was watching just as intently at the opposite end of the field.

Arena needs as much observation and evaluation as he can get of Gregg Berhalter and Eddie Pope because the U.S. defense is getting old. Jeff Agoos, David Regis, Carlos Llamosa and Robin Fraser are already past 30.

Replacements and backups are desperately needed, and Arena is tinkering with different central combinations in his four-man back line.

The U.S. must stop Guatemala and Costa Rica during the current phase, and should it advance to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, its defense will face a potent, dangerous array of attackers. Experience will be important, but so will be speed, savvy and strength.

POPE-BERHALTER COMBO. Arena finds himself in the typically incongruous coaching dilemma of fielding teams that can grind out results while keeping an eye on the horizon. The pairing of Pope and Berhalter is an intriguing one.

Not much can be judged from an opponent as weak and aimless as Barbados. No one in the American camp could understand how it had beaten Costa Rica in July, and that result probably says more about the Ticos' tendency toward overconfidence than it does about the Bajan Rockets.

Both Pope and Berhalter were born in 1973, both are 6-foot-1, and they played together at North Carolina. They have come to the national team by very different paths and their talents are complementary, not identical.

Pope has been a mainstay for the national team and D.C. United since 1996; Berhalter has played the past six seasons in the Netherlands and is looking for a new club in England.

"One good thing about the two of them is Gregg doesn't have the greatest pace, but Eddie does," said U.S. assistant coach Dave Sarachan.

"Greg is good with his feet, he's left-footed, he can play a good long ball, he can play short balls, and he's aggressive. He gets in hard in the tackle.

"Eddie has experience and a little bite and adds a different dimension."

HEALTH QUESTIONS. Both players also have a history of health problems. Troublesome ailments are a staple of Pope's background, and he's been bothered by foot and hip injuries this summer.

Berhalter has a fragile right foot that has suffered fractures three times; doctors inserted a shunt into the foot to strengthen it. He's also been sidelined by broken ankles and torn ankle ligaments. He didn't play for the national team between 1995 and 1998 because of injuries and club commitments.

"My overall understanding of the game is better," said Berhalter of his experience with FC Zwolle, Sparta Rotterdam and Cambuur in the Dutch League.

"In Holland, they work on tactics and positioning so much, and I think that's helped me. They really appreciate that part of the game."

His teammates appreciate his ability to serve accurate balls. So lax was the Barbados pressure when it lost possession that Berhalter was able to ping passes forward. He crisply stroked balls to Joe-Max Moore and Brian McBride, and he lofted a sweet cross-field pass that dropped perfectly for Earnie Stewart.

"One of his attributes is that he's really, really good on the ball," said Pope. "He rarely turns it over."

Berhalter says his teams in Holland preferred matchups, and whether a team played three or four in the back would often be determined by the opponent's deployment.

"We played a system 1-v-1 all over the field," he said. "If the other team lined up with two forwards, we play with four in the back, and me and the other center back would take one of the forwards [each].

"If they play three forwards, I would take their forward and another [defender] would push into midfield. We'd always match up against players. It puts a lot of pressure on you, and you always have to win your battle, and that's one thing that went well for me."

He is a free agent and has been discussing a contract with Huddersfield Town of the English First Division, but turned down an offer worth a reported $250,000 per year. Six days after the U.S. beat Barbados, he was scheduled to play with Norwich City in a reserve game.

"It will take some getting used to," he said of a move to English soccer, "but I can win some headers and read the game pretty well, so that will help also."

UNC HISTORY. At North Carolina, Pope usually received a man-marking assignment and Berhalter did the sweeping.

"We gave up a few goals, but we scored a lot," said Berhalter. "Eddie is a quiet guy, but it's a quiet confidence. You always feel he's going to be there and you can count on him. He's a good player, we know each other from college, and we just work well together."

The game against Barbados was just the 14th cap for Berhalter since his debut against Saudi Arabia in 1994. He played a pair of solid games last summer at the Confederations Cup and also played strongly during the 2000 U.S. Cup against Ireland and Mexico.

But having missed the previous World Cup qualifying campaign, his introduction to CONCACAF play July 23 in Costa Rica couldn't have been rougher. After being beaten on the first goal, his dubious handball provided the Ticos with a victory.

Pope will be counted on to anchor the back line for the foreseeable future. "We need him healthy," said Sarachan. "He'll be important for us."

After watching Costa Rica beat Guatemala, 2-1, the day before the U.S. beat Barbados, Arena pondered the possibility of assigning Pope the job of stopping Paulo Wanchope, who scored both of the Ticos' goals.

"He's a real handful," said Arena.

But like several CONCACAF teams, Costa Rica has more than one potent weapon. Arena needs as many capable defenders as he can find.

by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney

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