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Arena dealing from strength as he sets lineup for Mexico qualifier.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, February 21, 2001) -- United States men’s coach Bruce Arena is playing things even closer to his vest than usual ahead of next Wednesday night’s opening World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. On a national conference call with reporters today, he refused to give any information about who he intends to start, or what formation he intends to use, in what is clearly the most important test since he took over the national team helm two years ago.
Even though he won’t announce a lineup until Tuesday night, it is likely that only three or four spots on the starting side are still undecided. The team will be heavily weighted towards European-based players because they are more fit, being in the middle of their club seasons, while Major League Soccer is in the early stages of preseason training.
"A majority of MLS players have not been playing on a regular basis for three or four months," Arena said. "Our players in Europe have been playing more regularly and right now have an edge in fitness and timing and confidence. . . so it seems pretty obvious to me that we need to stick with players who have been training on a regular basis."
Barring injury, or some other unforeseen situation, six starters seem set. Brad Friedel will be in goal, Claudio Reyna, Chris Armas, and Earnie Stewart will be in midfield, with Brian McBride on the front line and David Regis at left back.
The only questions seem to be who will start on the front line with McBride, who will be the fourth midfielder, and who will the other three defenders be.
"You don't need to be a genius to figure out our lineup and formation, and it won't look much different than anything we have done in the past," Arena said. "But we will be keeping that information within our team. I assume we’ll look pretty much like we have."
Since he took over, Arena has played four across the back, and at other times he has played three backs and five midfielders. At times, the five midfielders have been employed to add offensive punch by spraeding wide on both sides of the field, but on a couple of occasions, Arena played two defensive midfielders, usually Armas and either John O’Brien or Richie Williams.
Arena’s biggest dilemma is how offensively to play. Mexico would happily go home with a draw, so it is likely to assume a defensive posture. Looking for the victory, Arena might be tempted to play five midfielders to open up additional scoring lanes. Or at the other end of the spectrum, he might be so concerned with the several potent scorers Mexico will field, he will use a five-man, defensive-oriented midfield to avoid any mistakes in the middle.
More likely, he will go with four in the back. But which four? Mexico’s biggest threat will be Luis Hernandez, assuming he has recovered by a recent hamstring injury. Defender Carlos Llamosa has had good results against Hernandez in their meetings in MLS. In recent friendly matches, Arena has experimented with Eddie Pope in the middle, coupled with Llamosa in one match, Gregg Berhalter in another and Jeff Agoos in the third. Arena has said he liked Agoos pairing with Pope.
Against Colombia, Llamosa was put on the right and played well, although he was not comfortable at the position and was unsure of himself at times.
Another factor is that if Arena goes with four in the back, he will want his outside defenders to push the ball forward. Regis, if he does start on the left, is not as good getting into the offense as is Agoos. Llamosa is even less comfortable pushing the ball from the right side, Arena might consider Tony Sanneh at right back. Sanneh can defend well enough, and can essentially be an attacking midfielder when that is what is required. If Sanneh gets the start on the right side, I would think you’ll see Pope and Llamosa in the middle.
As for the fourth midfielder, assuming a 4-4-2, the choice would seem to be between Ben Olsen and Cobi Jones. Although he did not have a particularly strong match against China, Olsen has played well in England this winter. Jones is one of those players who can light up a match, or disappear almost completely -- you never know. He might well be more effectively coming off the bench.
It is possible that Arena could pull Joe-Max Moore back into the middle, if he decides to start Ante Razov with McBride up top. He could also possibly play Sanneh on right wing, although he said, "I could, but I doubt I will."
Asked what kind of a player he needs with McBride as the second forward, Arena said "Brian is a more central player and target player, so it is good to pair him up with a player that is a little more mobile. . . a player capable of scoring goals and moving forward." That possibly could be Razov or it could even be young Landon Donovan, who, while he lacks the experience, certainly does have the quickness.
In the end, it will probably be Moore at the second forward position and probably Olsen at left midfield.
Friedel will be goal, Arena said, because Keller has a match Sunday night in Madrid, while Friedel is done on Friday. Arena, however, has no concerns with Friedel who has been playing extremely well for Blackburn with six shutouts in his last eight matches. "I am comfortable with either of our three goaltenders in there -- Keller, Friedel or Meola," he said. "I think I can win any of these 10 matches with any of the three starting.
"We couldn’t get (Keller) released by his club. The earliest he could have gotten to Columbus would have been Monday night or Tuesday morning. We are better off with a rested goalie who we have had in camp and who is fully prepared. If Keller could have been released it is likely he would have been called in, but I am very comfortable with Brad."
Between injuries, suspensions and club obligations, Arena was hard pressed to find 11 warm bodies to pay in a couple of semifinal qualifying matches. It’s a tribute to how far the program has come that he now has the depth that his problem for Mexico seems to be choosing between qualified players who are ready to go.
"I think this will be the strongest squad we have put on the field at one time since I took over," Arena said. "I have a roster that gives me choices."
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Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..