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SOCCER GRAHAME L. JONES

Arena Taking U.S. Squad for Road Test

June 15, 2003|GRAHAME L. JONES

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine it now: Bruce Arena in Lyon, France, gobbling up the snails and frogs' legs.

Oh, and while you're at it, another plate of goose pate, garcon, s'il vous plait. Try saying that with a Jersey accent.

These are interesting days for the United States men's national team coach. And they will grow more interesting before the end of the week.

Arena has taken an experimental team to France to play in the FIFA Confederations Cup, and experimenting is the operative word.

Arena is said to know what he is doing, and you can't fault the man based on his record. He didn't coach the U.S. to the World Cup quarterfinals last year using smoke and mirrors alone. There was a plan.

Just as there must surely be a plan in the coming days for dealing with World Cup semifinalist Turkey on Thursday, world champion Brazil on Saturday and African champion Cameroon on June 23.

If not, the roof could fall in on Arena's laboratory.

How high the Americans finish in the eight-nation tournament is not really the issue. How well the Americans perform, individually and collectively, against three strong opponents in five days is what is being measured.

The long-term goal is to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. What must be accomplished in France -- and in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the U.S. and Mexico next month -- is to better identify the players who can achieve that goal.

World Cup qualifying is likely to start in January for the U.S., which means that Arena, who earned $961,802 for getting it right in 2002, has six months left to experiment, to test and analyze, to start getting it right for 2006.

With that in mind, the 23-man U.S. Confederations Cup roster is better understood.

The goalkeepers, for instance, are all new. The Korea/Japan '02 trio of Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tony Meola has been replaced by Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann and Joe Cannon.

Arena says there could easily have been others.

"You can only play one goalkeeper at a time, that's what I've figured out in all my years at this," he joked last week during a conference call.

"We know we've got two pretty good ones right now in Friedel and Keller. They are proven; the others are not. Tim [Howard] has great potential. I think there are a number of other goalkeepers in MLS that are in that position as well. Adin Brown is one, Nick Rimando played our last game against Wales and did well.... [The Galaxy's Kevin] Hartman.

"The only thing I know at this point is that we have a pretty solid pool of goalkeepers that follow both Keller and Friedel. Tim has gotten enough experience in the last half-year to demonstrate to me that he is a player who can play at this level.

"In my mind, I'm still not convinced that Friedel and Keller will be around in 2006, if we will be there [in Germany].... It's important for our goalkeepers that are here. Not only if they step on the field, but just to see them in training and see how they handle themselves around the team."

The loss of veteran defender Eddie Pope to injury has hurt the team, but Arena can still choose among Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter, Greg Vanney, Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, Cory Gibbs and the Galaxy's Danny Califf.

It's not necessarily a weak bunch, merely one that has limited international experience, with the exception of Hejduk.

"Losing Eddie Pope was a big blow because we were counting on Eddie to be our veteran player back there," Arena said. "Additionally, Tony Sanneh's not fit, so that's a loss."

Hejduk, then, becomes the veteran, while trying to hold off the challenge of Cherundolo for the right back position.

"Frankie, he's played in two World Cups and wants to play in a third one," Arena said. "He has definitely proven to me that he's a big-game player and that he's a reliable guy. He's a guy you can count on.

"In the center back [positions], we're looking at a combination of players. Califf is one. Dan's only 23. We're looking at Califf, and Bocanegra, and Berhalter and Gibbs in that position, as well as Vanney on the left."

The midfield is in good shape. Chris Armas will be trying to reclaim the central defensive role from Pablo Mastroeni, who stepped in so ably for him in Korea. Or Arena could try playing them in tandem.

He also has Earnie Stewart, Eddie Lewis, Bobby Convey, Kyle Martino, DaMarcus Beasley and Chris Klein vying for playing time.

Up front, the U.S. roster features Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis, Jovan Kirovski, Taylor Twellman and Jeff Cunningham.

There is plenty of room to experiment.

Arena has said that he wants to "bloody" players, a recognized term in Europe but one that caused some confusion on this side of the Atlantic.

"Bloodied means giving the players experience; not killing them," Arena said. "It's how to find the right balance between trying to win games and trying to give players experience, and that's what I've got to get a grip of. And how I do that, I can't tell you right now. It's not something I've been working on in the lab.

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