U.S. Soccer: Arena's quest for front-line firepower

Joe-Max Moore and Brian McBride claim the U.S. striker spots after blowing away Barbados

It took less than 10 seconds for Joe-Max Moore to make an impression on the United States' qualifier against Barbados.

He chased the visitors' opening kickoff and rushed a defender's pass that Chris Armas intercepted. Armas dished the ball to Brian McBride, who played it square to Moore. Moore's 22-yard whistler was a couple feet off the mark, but it instantly injected extra juice into the buzzing crowd at Foxboro Stadium.

Moore finished the night with two goals in the 7-0 rout, yet managed to sound disappointed in his performance afterward.

"I could have had three in the first five minutes, I think," Moore said. "I thought it might be one of those nights where I hit the crossbar, post and everything else."

The return of Moore and McBride to the U.S. lineup left Coach Bruce Arena with far more options than he had in the team's first two qualifiers, both of which ended poorly.

The quest to find a consistently potent forward tandem continues, with Moore and McBride forming a surprisingly new combination.

Against Barbados, Arena chose to move Cobi Jones, who had been the most effective forward in the months preceding qualifying, back to midfield and sit Ante Razov, who scored in Guatemala and set up the U.S. goal in Costa Rica.

McBride, 28, and Moore, 29, had only started as striking partners once before in the four-year overlap of their international careers, that in a January 1999 friendly in Bolivia that ended 0-0.

In his 27 games as coach, Arena has started 17 different forward duos. No pair has been used more than twice except McBride and Jones, who have started up top together seven times since late 1998.

THE STARTING POINT. Throughout Arena's tinkering with the front line, there has been one constant-McBride. Arena has tried nine different players alongside McBride, repeatedly clarifying that the Crew forward's value is not limited to goalscoring.

"He is the perfect player to play forward to," Arena said. "He can hold the ball, he wins fifty-fifty balls and he is able to create opportunities in our favor. He is a very good player when the other team has the ball. He is very active and naturally we would like to see him score a few more goals just like we would like to see all of our strikers score more goals.

"I think McBride has developed into a good player and we miss his qualities on the field."

McBride missed the first two qualifiers with a broken cheekbone, but has shown no less courage in going for headballs since returning to the field for the MLS All-Star Game July 29.

In just two days of training before the Barbados match, McBride learned that he and Moore are just beginning to gain a mutual understanding.

"It was a lot of fun playing with Joe," McBride said. "Someone that's working nonstop, making great runs. In fact, a few times, we ran into each other, which is something we have to work on. But he is a constant workhorse ... I probably don't have to run near post as much, because he's going to be making those runs."

THE COBI QUESTION. Even during Jones' scoring spree (he scored five goals in seven games between January and June this year), Arena maintained that he considered the dreadlocked speedster a flank player first, then a forward.

During U.S. Cup in June, Jones seemed to find a niche on the right by switching during games with right midfielder Earnie Stewart.

That Jones was uncharacteristically quiet in the first two qualifiers could be attributed, in part, to the absence of McBride, who had shown a knack for providing balls into space. Against Costa Rica, Stewart even overtook Jones as the predominant forward. Stewart managed the only U.S. goal and Jones wasn't a factor.

Arena's comments on his decision to use Moore prior to the Barbados match focused on the former Revolution star's work rate and composure in the penalty area.

While Jones' pace causes problems, his goals have tended to come from knifing runs through open spaces rather than goalmouth scrambles. In that sense, Jones is an imperfect complement for McBride, whose aerial efforts frequently result in second chances close to goal.

Arena showed that he wants to keep Jones on the field by moving him to the left side spot usually reserved for Eddie Lewis.

ODD MAN OUT. Razov filled in admirably for McBride in Guatemala and Costa Rica, especially considering that they were the first two qualifiers of his career.

Arena made it known after the Barbados match that Razov is still in the overall forward picture, even though he didn't appear.

"All the substitutions were made because of injuries," Arena said. "Ante Razov is probably the player who got the short end tonight because it was a game where I was perhaps looking for him to come in for McBride at some point."

Razov has started just five international matches, but he has three goals. Although he is not known for his prowess in the air, Razov seems to have established himself for the time being as McBride's backup.

MOORE MARCHES HOME. Foxboro was the perfect setting for his first national team appearance since November 1999. The same fans who watched him toil for the Revolution in the first four seasons of MLS gave him several rousing ovations.

While Barbados, particularly with only nine men, was not a legitimate gauge of anything the United States accomplished, Moore showcased his trademark attributes.

On several occasions he doggedly pursued passes that seemed doomed to fail. His finishing was admittedly flawed, but his second tally was the type of goal Arena seeks from him.

An unmarked Jones curled the ball in from the right side and Moore muscled past John Parris just enough to redirect the ball inside the near post.

During the Gold Cup in February, when Moore was just starting to score goals for Everton in the English Premier League, Arena was quoted as saying that Moore had not changed as a player. The comments briefly ruffled Moore's feathers, but Arena said they were taken out of context.

After the Barbados match, he detailed some of the ways in which playing in England has improved Moore's game, while not changing its basic components.

"He's a hard-working, blue-collar type of forward," Arena said. "He's a fitter athlete now, a little more mature and he's been in a lot of freakin' battles, so these kind of games are like practice."

Moore seems relieved to be pegged as a striker after floating among several different positions - including defensive midfield - during Steve Sampson's tenure.

"I've told Bruce all along, I'd be happy playing anywhere for him," Moore said. "I think I'm best closer to the goal, I think I'm a better striker than I am a midfielder, but we'll see. If this establishes me as a forward, I'm not sure."

Arena said that although "nothing is set in stone," he expects to use Moore and McBride again when Guatemala comes to RFK Stadium Sept. 3.

"Let's face it, we don't have the Batistutas or the Ronaldos, but you put a combination of McBride and Moore on the field and you've got two guys you have to deal with over 90 minutes," Arena said. "They don't take any breaks, they create a lot of chances and they put themselves in the right positions on the field. That's important."

by Soccer America associate editor Will Kuhns

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