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It Seems To Me . . .

Arena's selections for World Cup roster are fairly evident.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, April 27, 2006) -- Sitting in Leipzig, Germany, after the World Cup draw last December, United States men's manager Bruce Arena admitted that, if he had to, he probably could name 18 or 19 members of his final 23-man World Cup roster, injuries notwithstanding. The latter is important because injuries are always a major last-minute factor in the selection process.

If the bulk of the roster was clear in Arena's mind six-to-eight months ago, 2006 has been limited to deciding the last few spots and waiting to see who got hurt. Now, with Arena planning to announce his roster Tuesday, not all that much has changed since December. The last few choices need to be made and several injury questions remain to be resolved.

What follows is a best guess of what the final 23-man roster will look like.

Goalkeepers (3): Essentially this selection has been set for a considerable period. Kasey Keller has been penciled in as the starter for Germany 2006 for two years, especially since Brad Friedel decided to retire from international competition to concentrate on his club commitment at England's Blackburn Rovers. Likewise, it was pretty well understood that Tim Howard should be given the important experience of living through a World Cup given he is the U.S.'s goalkeeper of the future, even if he hasn't seen much action this year at Manchester United in England.

That left one goalkeeping opening which was clinched by Marcus Hahnemann based on the phenomenal year he has had, leading Reading to promotion from the English League Championship to the Premier League. In last summer's Gold Cup, Hahnemann showed he has the talent to tend goal on the intentional level. His play for Reading, week in and week out, demonstrated he could play under the same kind of pressure he might see in Germany if Keller goes down. So, there is almost no doubt the goalkeepers will be Keller, Hahnemann and Howard.

Defenders (6 or 7): The initial question looking at back-liners is how many will Arena take to Germany. That will likely turn on whether John O'Brien, Eddie Lewis and Pablo Mastroeni are classified as midfielders or defenders. All three are expected to be heading to Germany and more midfielders than defenders, but all three can and have played ably in back.

One of the two big questions with the U.S. squad is who will start as the left-side defender. Lewis has been tried there in a number of games over the past year and O'Brien is comfortable playing in back, although his best value to the U.S. is probably in the midfield. But if both Lewis and O'Brien make the squad as midfielders, then Arena likely will be comfortable taking only six defenders.

Absolutely set for the final roster, and to start in Germany at right back, is Steve Cherundolo. The co-captain of Hannover 96 has matured into an experienced and capable defender in the German Bundesliga and at the international level. He is a lock to go and to start.

In the last year, as he gained experience and confidence playing in Belgium for Standard de Liège, Oguchi Onyewu has gone from simply being a physical force to a highly capable central defender and almost a certain starter for the U.S. in Germany. Probably key to using Onyewu is pairing him with an experienced partner and that will likely be Eddie Pope in Germany.

A year ago, it seemed that Pope's international career was over, the victim of a series of injuries. But over the last 12 months he has gotten healthy and with fitness has come proof that his many skills have not eroded. He now seems certain to not only make the final roster, but to compete for a starter's role come June.

Another player who has made a late comeback from injury is Cory Gibbs. It took him more than half a year to return from off-season surgery and then he was forced to switch teams in the Netherlands after Feyenoord Rotterdam would not wait for him to get healthy. In the final few matches of the season with ADO Den Haag, he showed he is rounding into fitness. Because he can play either in the middle or on the outside, he is probable to be on the final roster.

Assuming that Arena will name six defenders, because he has midfielders who can play in back, it now looks like a competition between five defenders for the final two places. Young defender Jonathan Spector has made considerable strides in the last year and it's clear he has a golden career ahead of him, but his youth and lack of experience made his chances to make the scquad questionable at best. On Tuesday, he had surgery on his dislocated shoulder and he must rehabilitate for two months and set his sights on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

In the competition is Carlos Bocanegra, who has played both the middle and outside defender positions and now seems fit after some recent injury problems with Fulham in England. A few months ago, it looked almost certain that Gregg Berhalter would make the final roster and would compete for a starter's role. However, after an uncharacteristically poor performance in the 4-1 loss to Germany March 22, he now has to be considered a question mark to make the final roster. One Major League Soccer-based player who seems to have an inside track on a roster spot is Frankie Hedjuk. He remains one of the fittest and fleetest of all Americam players. and he has a depth of international experience.

More questionable are two MLSers -- Kansas City Wizards central defender Jimmy Conrad and Los Angeles Galaxy outside defender Chris Albright. Probably, no player in the U.S. pool has made the strides Conrad has in the last year, but he has some injury problems and the bottom line is he just doesn't have the international experience of his competition. Albright, a converted striker, has shown he is a capable defender who is always a scoring threat with headers off set plays. That has kept him in contention for a roster spot.

When all is said and done, the defenders should be Cherundolo, Onyewu, Pope, Hejduk and two from Bocanegra, Gibbs and Berhalter - or all three if Arena takes seven defenders.

Midfielders (10): Considering midfielders, first look at those who are locks. Captain Claudio Reyna is probably the most critical member of the squad. Likewise, Landon Donovan, DeMarcus Beasley, and the aforementioned Mastroeni, Lewis and O'Brien, if he is anywhere near fit.

There has been considerable comment as to whether a player such as O'Brien, who has been injured so long and so often should be considered, but his long absence has made people forget that, when healthy, he is simply one of the half-dozen best Americans, period. If he is close to fit, he will make the roster and, if he is close to 100 percent, he will start. The U.S. is a much better squad for having him. While he has only made a brief five-minute appearance in two games since signing with MLS's Chivas USA, he started two exhibition games for Chivas against college teams in the last week with no ill effects.

One player who has made great strides in the last year playing in England is Reading's Bobby Convey. He has matured both as an individual and as a player and, in doing so, seems to have locked up a place on the final roster. At Reading, he has operated as a part of the best midfield in the League Championship and has become a team player who looks to teammates before himself. This was a key ingredient missing from his game when he was in MLS.

Given those probable seven locks, there are probably three midfield spots open. One of those has probably been claimed by the New England Revolution's Clint Dempsey, helped by the dearth of right-side midfielders. He has had his ups and down over the past six months, but he has shown he can raise his game to an international level. He also displays a willingness to attack and to take on players that has been absent from a number of those competing for a spot on the right side of midfield. This combination should be enough to make up for his inconsistency.

The other two midfield positions would seem to be a competition between Dempsey's New England teammates Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston, the Kansas City Wizard's Kerry Zavagnin and D.C. United's Ben Olsen. A year ago, Ralston seemed on his way to not only the final roster, but to heavy minutes playing on the right side, but injuries have reduced him to a question mark. Healthy, he is on the squad, but his status will be a last-minute decision that could well go against him. Another player who was in the mix, but seems to have played himself out of contention, is Kansas City's Chris Klein.

A likely winner in the numbers game will be Noonan. He would seem the principal beneficiary of the lack of right side players, especially if Ralston can't be counted on. Zavagnin's likelihood of making the team has diminished as a result of both some poor outings and the return of O'Brien. What little chance Zavagnin has probably rests on O'Brien's availability. If O'Brien goes, almost certainly Zavagnin does not.

That leaves Olsen. If there is a sentimental favorite to capture what amounts to the final roster spot it is the D.C. United veteran. Working in his favor is the fact he can play any midfield position and recently has been the most consistently good midfielder of those on the bubble. Add to this the fact that he and Arena have a strong relationship that goes back a long way, his presence on the roster would not be a surprise.

Missing completely from this conversation is Chicago Fire midfielder Chris Armas. He was penciled in as a starter in the 2002 World Cup, But injured his knee and was a last-minute scratch from the team. Four years later, he is injured again. He is close to making his MLS season debut, but it would take something approaching a miracle to see him ready to play in Germany. It is likely Armas will go down as the hard-luck player of his generation.

Forwards (4): Two forwards would seem to have a lock: Brian McBride and Taylor Twellman.

McBride will be a starter in Germany. At Fulham in England, he has developed a reputation for tenacity and his overall game has matured. New England's Twellman seems to have locked up a spot after his goal drought ended in January. With the goals, he seems to have found a comfort level.

The remaining two forward spots might be the most hotly-contested openings on the team. Kansas City's Eddie Johnson has seemed poised to be a breakout player, but has been set back somewhat by injuries over the past year. His Wizards teammate Josh Wolff shows flashes of brilliance, but his inconsistency may be costly. Brian Ching of the Houston Dynamo has had his moments and is off to a strong start in MLS, but he has been disappointing in international friendlies.

The forgotten player is Conor Casey. He too has come back from off-season surgery and is again a starter for 1. FSV Mainz 05 in the German Bundesliga. Word from Germany is he is rapidly regaining match fitness, if not the sharpness a goal scorer needs. He could well end up as the surprise addition to the roster.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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