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Arena looking for depth, a few starters prior to Mexico qualifier.By Robert Wagman
OAKLAND, Calif. (Monday, January 29, 2001) -- Before and after Saturdayís 2-1 victory over China, United States menís coach Bruce Arena made one thing clear: the final match result didnít count for much, nor will it against Colombia Saturday in Miami.
These matches have two principal purposes: to get the Major League Soccer-based players to match fitness in time for the crucial opening World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Columbus February 28, and to identify a few additional players to fill out the roster for that match as well as for future qualifiers.
Some positions, and some players, are clearly set for Mexico. Claudio Reyna, Chris Armas and Earnie Stewart will start in the midfield with Jeff Agoos and Carlos Llamosa on the back line. Brian McBride is set up front, but the other five starters are less clear. Letís look at the situation back to front.
Tony Meola will be one of the two goalkeepers until the European season ends in May. "Look, it doesnít make any sense to call in both Kasey (Keller) and Brad (Friedel) and have one of them sit on the bench when we have Tony available," Arena said. "Both of them are playing and I donít want to take them away from their team to sit on the bench."
Either Keller or Friedel will most likely be the starter; which one is called back is another question. Until yesterday, Meola made a strong case to be in net against Mexico considering he had a terrific MLS season in 2000, played well against Barbados in the final semifinal-round qualifier and had a strong training camp earlier this month. His feeble effort on Chinaís one goal, hesitating and whiffing on his attempted clearance, has set him back in Arenaís eyes.
When Arena was asked Saturday why he didnít give a younger keeper -- such as the Los Angeles Galaxyís Kevin Hartman or the Dallas Burnís Matt Jordan -- Arena answered bluntly, "We only need three goalkeepers in the pool. Itís our two in Europe and Meola. I know what the other guys can do. If we have injuries, they are available. Now I need to get Tony ready."
Defense, which seemed set, is developing into an open question. Beyond Llamosa and Agoos, Gregg Berhalter, who remains "between" clubs, is clearly not match fit. He received a slight knock in training on Friday, the day before the China match. As a result he could only go for a half, and in that time twice watched speedy Chinese forwards run by him. He has a distance to go to be ready for Mexico.
Eddie Pope played the full 90 minutes against China at right back, but after a year and a half of injuries, he is a far cry from the Eddie Pope of 1998 when he was the best U.S. defender and a player who looked to have a bright international future. "I thought Eddie did fine," Arena said. "He needs to learn the right back position and he needs to get completely fit. But heís making progress."
With Los Angelesí Robin Fraser still injured, the back who might step up is the MetroStarsí Mike Petke. He will undoubtedly play against Colombia and will have to make the most of his chance. Another player who is back in the mix is David Regis who is again playing regularly for Metz in France and back on Arenaís radar. He is playing on the right side for Metz and it wouldnít be surprising to see him there against Mexico.
In the midfield, both Ben Olsen and Cobi Jones are sure to be on the roster as is Hertha Berlinís Tony Sanneh. They are probably competing for the final starting assignment. Jones missed the China match because of the death of his grandmother. Olsen was solid and his stay with Nottingham Forest has matured him. Jones will have the Colombia match to show he belongs in the starting 11.
Who will fill in the other midfield roles is still to be answered. Certainly Ajax of Netherlandsí John OíBrien is certain to be on the roster. Jovan Kirovski, who is getting some playing time with Sporting Lisbon in Portugal, is still in the mix, as are Eddie Lewis of Englandís Fulham and Frankie Hedjuk of Germanyís Bayer Leverkusen.
Arena wants the MetroStarsí Clint Mathis to become more of a holding midfielder, but he has tended to drift back, neither distributing well nor getting into the attack quickly as was the case against China.
DaMarcus Beasley really helped himself in training camp and against China. The speedy midfielder has made a solid statement that he should be on the national team bench and available to attack in the final third of a match.
One question that seems to have been answered over the past three weeks is whether to play Landon Donovan as a true striker or as an attacking midfielder, the position he has been playing with Leverkusen. As far as the U.S. and Arena are concerned, Donovan is now a forward.
"I think thatís his best position and the one he will play for us," Arena said.
For his part, Donovan is happy with the decision. "I feel more comfortable at forward," he said. "Itís the position I want to play and the one where I think I can help the most."
Arena says the U.S. now has six forwards competing for four or five roster spots with McBride strengthening his hold on a starting position with a well-struck goal against China. "He gives us several dimensions," Arena said.
Competing for the other forward spots -- and a start against Mexico -- are Donovan, Joe-Max Moore of Everton in England, Ante Razov who plays in Spain, and a pair from MLS: the Chicago Fireís Josh Wolff, and D.C. Unitedís Chris Albright.
Wolff has been the surprise of training camp, looking effective despite having hernia surgery January 19.
"I need to fill the final four or five roster spots for Mexico and I need to know who will still be in the pool for
later call up should they be needed," Arena said "Look at least year. Who thought we would have struggled to find 11
healthy bodies for two of the qualifiers. We need depth. Thatís what weíre doing here."
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
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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..