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It Seems To Me . . .

O'Brien, Regis helped their causes with their efforts against Tunisia.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Monday, March 13, 2000) -- Yesterday's draw between the United States and Tunisia was little more than a television commitment that had to be fulfilled in the greater scheme of things. But for a number of American players trying to ensure themselves places on coach Bruce Arena's World Cup qualifying squad, this match, and the week-long training camp here, was virtually do or die.

There are few, if any, chances left to impress Arena and his coaching staff. "By the time we reach the U.S. Cup in June, I want to have a core of about 30 players to make selections from," Arena explained. "We've now seen enough players, enough times, that we can begin making decisions."

Two players who Arena has not seen much of, helped themselves greatly this past week. Almost certainly both Netherlands-based midfielder John O'Brien and. France-based defender David Regis have played themselves onto the squad. Both players not only had very solid matches today, but also were excellent all week.

Actually, both probably have given Arena a new problem -- how to find room for them. O'Brien filled in for the absent Claudio Reyna. He played well enough to command attention as a starter. But where? One thought would be to play him next to defensive midfielder Chris Armas, and then move Reyna in front of the two. Otherwise, it might come down to a competition between O'Brien and Armas for the role supporting Reyna.

Regis showed he certainly can play at the left back position. In fact, it is not unreasonable to say that right now the U.S.'s two best defenders are both left backs: Regis and Jeff Agoos. One answer well may be to move Agoos into the middle and slide Robin Fraser out to the right side in Arena's three back setup. If central defender Eddie Pope proves brittle and injury-prone, and center back Carlos Llamosa does not have the foot speed to take on some of the fleet forwards the U.S. will be facing, playing both Regis and Agoos might be an answer.

Another player who helped himself significantly today was the goal scorer Ben Olsen. The midfielder did not have a good Gold Cup, and coming into this match had become something of a question mark. But he clearly sparked the team when he entered at halftime, and his play did a lot to erase the questions.

"I know I did not play well in Miami. No one has to tell me when I don't do well," Olsen said. "I knew I had something to prove, and I hope that I did. In knew if I got in, I would just go as hard as I could."

Some other players showed they are almost certain starters when the qualifers roll around in September. Flank midfielders Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis both seem sure things in the lineup.

But questions remain on other positions. Brian McBride did not play badly, but he still tends to roam too far back, and he still tends to get rid of the ball too quickly. Arena has been after him to control the ball and to make runs straight at defenders. He still seems reluctant to do this, but will have to if he wants to be a starter up front.

A big question mark has to be put next to the name of Chad Deering. Basically everyone believes he is much more talented then he has been showing in his national team appearances. It's not that he plays badly, it more than he remains in the background and does not assert himself. He should get additional chances, but time may be running out for him.

Finally there is the biggest question mark -- striker Jason Kreis. By any objective measure, Kreis hurt his chances of making this team today. His reputation in MLS is as a finisher, but three times today he had setups he should have coverted. On two he shot badly, and the goalkeeper made a terrific save on the other.

If anyone knows this it is Kreis. "I don't know what it is," he said "I just can't seem to finish when I get the chances up here. I know now I have to go back to Dallas and have the kind of year I had last year and hope Bruce notices."

The team as a whole did not play badly against Tunisia. It outshot its foe 16-4 and created any number of quality chances. But a couple of things probably give rise to some worry.

In the first half, the team was almost completely left handed, playing the ball up the left side and through Lewis almost exclusively. In doing so, Tunisia was able to shut the attack down with ease. Jones was so ignored on the right he must have wondered why he was out there.

Things improved in the second half when Olsen entered the match and began to force things up the right side. This opened up much more space for the entire offense.

Then, too, one has to continue to worry about the lack of a target forward, one who will play on top for an entire match. Time after time, both Kreis and McBride tracked further and further back into the midfield, and no one was really playing forward. There were times when the U.S. seemed to be playing a 3-7.

Whether it ends up being Joe-Max Moore, or even one of the youngsters, the U.S. really is still looking for an answer at forward.

All in all, however, it has to be considered a positive outing for the U.S. Birmingham provided an appreciative, overwhelmingly pro-USA crowd. It has to be considered a probable venue for big matches down the road (U.S.- Canada would be interesting in Birmingham). Altogether, it was a good week for Bruce Arena and his charges.

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

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