WORLD CUP: Two U.S. spots remain up for grabs

By Ridge Mahoney

SENIOR EDITOR

SOCCER AMERICA

John OÆBrien probably wonÆt start against the Czech Republic, DaMarcus Beasley might start but in a different position, and at least four players are in contention for two spots that are up for grabs June 12.

Those are the conclusions to be drawn after a sorry showing against Morocco (0-1), a consistent dominance of Venezuela (2-0), and a tale of two halves (1-0) with Latvia in the final three preparation matches for the 2006 World Cup.

OÆBrien is gaining in fitness and confidence but canÆt be ready in less than two weeks. He chipped and clipped good balls that had the Latvians scrambling, and until he tired badly early in the second half, showed glimmers of that audacity and acumen so vital to the U.S. four years ago. But the lungs and legs need a deeper conditioning base and without a quantum leap forward during the first week of June, heÆs a sub for the first game and maybe the second as well.

Where and if Beasley starts partially depends on how much Coach Bruce Arena fears the Czech midfield combo of Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky. BeasleyÆs offensive game is improving, but his defending is rarely sub-par, and thus Arena must consider playing Beasley on the right side of midfield to get both him and Bobby Convey on the field. Czech left back Marek Jankulovski also likes to bomb forward and needs to be monitored. A healthy OÆBrien could tangle with Nedved and Rosicky; without him, the midfield needs more bite.

A 4-3-3 with Convey at left mid and Beasley further up field as a left wing isnÆt out of the question but the workload on the other midfielders would be staggering. If any player boosted his stock from ôholdö to ôbuyö during these three games, it was Convey. Yet sitting him at the expense of Beasley is a gamble, so both may play.

That might squeeze out Josh Wolff, which Arena is loathe to do, for WolffÆs subtle, shrewd touches sometimes spring the attack into a scoring move. He did it again against Venezuela with a soft pass right into ConveyÆs stride for him to hit the cross Brian Ching touched into the net.

Wolff started against Morocco as a right wing, with Beasley on the left, Brian McBride up top, and Landon Donovan tucked behind McBride. The attack sputtered, but not because of formation or tactics. The Americans, for most of that game, stunk and got what they deserved in stoppage time, although the central midfield had to be revamped twice due to Claudio ReynaÆs injury departure in the 16th minute and OÆBrienÆs adios at halftime.

If Arena believes his midfield needs help containing Nedved and Rosicky without sacrificing much of its attacking punch, he can deploy Beasley at right mid, as was the case against Latvia. Four years ago, Reyna played out wide against Mexico in a 3-5-2, but his dodgy health makes that unlikely in this tournament.

Also, Arena needs him in the middle to plug up the lanes Nedved and Rosicky exploit with through balls and dribbles. Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni are tenacious enough to stay tight and steer opponents into double-teams, and nobody on the U.S. team can match ReynaÆs knack for playing turnovers smartly and quickly.

Eddie Johnson didnÆt get the goal that would have eradicated much of his malaise, and Arena rightly lit into him after he slumbered against Morocco. Yet heÆs a unique mix of mobility, strength and speed, and his splendid cross that Clint Dempsey headed into the Venezuelan net was reminiscent of his square ball that Donovan relayed to Eddie Lewis for a goal against T&T in Port of Spain 16 months ago. But Johnson still seems too benign to risk in the starting XI.

Which brings us to Dempsey, he of the smooth swagger and jerky dribbles, the incredulous expressions and jivey celebrations. HeÆs a risk-taker, a perfect catalyst off the bench if the U.S. needs a goal. Sometimes he nicks the ball through tacklers, at other times he scratches it away from them, but he forces fouls and errors when not displaying an uncanny knack for getting on the end of things.

Against Venezuela, he was about to receive a ball played back to him near the center circle, but the pass was blocked and squirted in another direction, so he shoved an opponent out of the way and began gamboling up field, not in a blind sprint, but more like a controlled canter.

Once the ball went wide to Johnson, he accelerated and as the cross came over, he lunged to stick his head in front of an opponent lining up a clearance and Beasley winding up to hit a difficult volley. Instead, the ball crashed into the net. The dude got game.

The two spots up for grabs are that right midfield slot and a forward partner for McBride in some form. Beasley, Wolff and Dempsey are the midfield candidates, although two of three could play if Arena chooses not to start Convey. Wolff is also a possible McBride accomplice, as is Johnson. The wild card in either spot, is, as always, Donovan.

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