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U.S. Men's Roster

It Seems To Me . . .

United States depth is growing, as evidenced by California training camp.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Saturday, December 11, 1999) -- Thirteen months ago, on the eve of his first match as United States national team coach, Bruce Arena said he wanted to accomplish three things during 1999. "I want to look at quite a few players to see who might be able to help us. I want to develop a pool of about 40 players who will form the nucleus of our World Cup qualifying squad for 2002. And I want to re-instill some level of confidence in the players after what happened in France," he said.

The results over the past year show clearly that he has accomplished the latter. No matter who the U.S. is playing, whether at home or away, whether a friendly or an important tournament, the players that now comprise Arena's national team believe they can win. This was shown by the disappointment the squad expressed in losing a close match in Morocco in November despite playing against a quality opponent on the road in front of a hostile crowd, and with a number of starters missing.

The roster for the January training camp in California that Arena announced on Thursday, shows that he is well on his way to developing that 40-man player pool, any one of whom could play in any given match, and acquit himself well. In fact, what the roster shows is that the U.S. is beginning to develop real depth at some positions, and an interesting competition is going to ensue among a number of players to see who will get the starting call when World Cup qualifying begins in October.

Arena called 34 players into training camp. These 34 probably represent the strongest group of U.S. soccer players ever assembled. What makes it even more impressive is that missing from the roster are probable starters Kasey Keller, and Joe-Max Moore who will remain with their squads in Europe, Eddie Pope who is on his way to the altar, and veteran Ernie Stewart, who has been fighting injuries this year and will remain in Europe to train with his Dutch team.

Also missing from the camp are two of the better younger players, Landon Donovan, the tournament most valuable player in the recent under-17 world championship, who will be training with his German club, Bayer Leverkusen, and D.C. United's Chris Albright, the high scorer from the U.S. under-20s who is still recuperating from knee surgery. Both were impressive in training with the national team last summer.

The roster selection does point out two problems the U.S. continues to have. The first is that many of the best players essentially play the same positions. The second, and a problem that was glaring in France, is that there is no so-called "target" forward, who has pace, technical skill, and is a dependable finisher.

The U.S. is clearly solid in goal. Keller has emerged as one of the top dozen keepers in the world. Brad Friedel is not getting playing time in Liverpool, because he plays behind a world class goalkeeper in Dutchman Sander Westerveld (the Netherlands' probable number one keeper, for whom Liverpool paid $6.5 million this year). But he is a very talented keeper and would be starting on any number of English Premier League teams.

One of the more interesting competitions this spring will be to see who emerges as the number three keeper -- a competition between veteran Tony Meola, and Major League Soccer standouts Zach Thorton, Tom Presthus and Kevin Hartman.

The U.S. is starting to develop depth at defense. In any given match, Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope, Robin Fraser, Carlos Llamosa, or David Regis could start, with younger defenders such as C.J. Brown, Gregg Berhalter, Steve Cherundolo, Greg Vanney and newcomer Carey Talley pressuring them.

Interestingly, Arena sees Frankie Hedjuk as an overlapping right back, a position he is playing in Germany. And many observers think that John Harkes will eventually find his place on this team as a right back, a position he played last winter at Nottingham Forest, and the position former national team coach Steve Sampson said Harkes would not "embrace."

The real crowding starts in the middle and on the wings. At the back of midfield, Chris Armas, Richie Williams and Chad Deering are competing for one spot, a spot that some think David Regis might actually be best suited to play. On the wings John O'Brien and Tony Sanneh essentially play the same right wing position, as does Ben Olsen. Olsen can be flipped to the left side, but that's where Eddie Lewis has been calling home.

Claudio Reyna is the link in the middle, but in gets messy in front of him. Essentially, Jovan Kirovski, Jason Kreis, Cobi Jones, Eric Wynalda, Ernie Stewart, Joe Max Moore, Ante Razov and Brian McBride all play this kind of attacking midfielder-withdrawn forward position. All seem more comfortable playing off the ball and pushing forward out of midfield.

What Arena is desperately searching for, as Steve Sampson searched for in 1998, is that target forward to play on top. The kind of forward that is needed is one who can play with his back to goal, can settle crosses and passes, can turn on defenders, can take them on and beat them one-on-one, and who can run all day. It's too bad Stern John's father was not a U.S. serviceman, because that is exactly the type player Arena and the team needs.

It is not without reason that the player that so many fans love to hate, Roy Lassiter, is on the roster. Frankly, while he lacks a high degree of technical skill and at times is frustratingly unable to finish, Lassiter is as close as the U.S. has to this kind of target forward. He can still run and run, and his pace has a way of stretching defenses. If he could score more at the international level, Lassiter might still end up a starter on this team.

You might call it waiting for Landon. I get a lot of e-mail saying shouldn't Donovan get the start. Be patient. There is a big jump between U-17s and the full national side. In two years he may develop. But even if he does, he is a forward more in the Joe-Max Moore-Eric Wynalda mold, than in the Stern John-Jaime Moreno type.

This is not to say that the U.S. could not be successful with two forwards such as Brian McBride and Wynalda or Moore starting. "Hey, we can score goals," Arena said. "We've shown that this past year. Does it matter whether they come out of the midfield or off head balls from crosses? We'll be fine."

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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