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U.S. Failing Its Chemistry Test

Analysis: If soccer team wants to advance in World Cup, Arena needs to decide on his starting forwards.


Mathematically, it's possible that the United States could advance to the second round of this summer's World Cup without scoring a goal. Three 0-0 ties against Portugal, South Korea and Poland could do the trick if other results went the Americans' way.

But such an improbable scenario is hardly the sort of thing the U.S. soccer team should be contemplating.

What Coach Bruce Arena and his assistants need to do--in a hurry--is determine who the starting forwards will be in Korea/Japan '02 and give them as much playing time together as possible.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is part of that process, but heading into today's quarterfinal match against El Salvador at the Rose Bowl, the results have been disappointing.

True, two games have produced two victories. But in edging South Korea, 2-1, and Cuba, 1-0, the U.S. has hardly shown the sort of firepower that will be needed in the May 31-June 30 World Cup.

Landon Donovan lobbed in a goal, taking smart advantage of a Korean goalkeeper who was well off his line. DaMarcus Beasley volleyed in another, with a left-foot shot he could not repeat against Cuba. And Brian McBride scored from the penalty spot.

Arena selected five forwards for his Gold Cup roster: Donovan, McBride, Jeff Cunningham, Ante Razov and Josh Wolff. He kept Clint Mathis in reserve but might activate him for this afternoon's match.

The most telling comment Arena has made so far in this 12-nation tournament came when he said: "We need to find a better partner up front for McBride."

Apart from being a slap in the face for Razov and Wolff, who started against South Korea and Cuba, respectively, it seemed to be an admission that McBride already is inked in as a World Cup starter.

There's nothing wrong with that. The striker is a threat in the air as well as on the ground and ranks fifth all-time with 15 goals for the national team. He had the only goal the U.S. managed in the 1998 World Cup in France when he scored against Iran.

But to write off Wolff so quickly seems hasty. Wolff and Mathis were a potent partnership early in World Cup qualifying before both were sidelined by injuries. It will take Wolff time to regain the sharpness he showed a year ago before he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.

"Obviously, the finishing aspect of my game was not there today," he said after the Cuba match. "I should have had a couple of goals, it would have helped this team gain a little more confidence.

"There are no excuses to be made. I need to be better in front of the goal because that's my job."

Arena agreed.

"Josh was OK today," he said. "It's been a long time since he's played 60 minutes. I thought he tired a little bit. He's still not completely confident coming off his injury and he didn't do well with a couple of chances. But I thought his running off the ball was pretty good."

Considering it was only the third game in eight months for Wolff and only the second time he had played alongside McBride, it is too early to say the partnership is the wrong one for the U.S.

"I thought Brian and I played really well [together] today," Wolff said. "I was a little bit better on the timing of his flicks [flicked headers] and able to get behind him and support him when he won some balls. Maybe in the middle of the field we need to play a little bit better together when the ball's at our feet."

The McBride-Wolff combination is not as dynamic as the Mathis-Wolff pairing, but if Arena is intent on starting McBride in the World Cup it is going to be difficult to have Mathis and Wolff on the field at the same time, not to mention Donovan.

Mathis could drop back into an attacking midfield role, but the U.S. midfield already is crowded, what with Chris Armas, Claudio Reyna and Earnie Stewart likely World Cup starters and John O'Brien, Cobi Jones and Beasley very much in the picture.

A great deal will depend on how quickly and how well Mathis returns after being out for more than seven months because of torn ligaments in his right knee suffered in June.

The U.S. has significant games on its pre-World Cup schedule, including encounters with Italy in February, Germany in March, Ireland in April and the Netherlands in May.

But unless the Americans can start producing some goals against the likes of El Salvador, their World Cup prospects will remain gloomy.




Pairings for today's quarterfinals games in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at the Rose Bowl:

* Mexico vs. South Korea, noon

* United States vs. El Salvador, 2:30 p.m.

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