When asked about his goals for the current national team camp, U.S. coach Bruce Arena said his primary objective was to find some players who would "step up their game a little bit." On that count, the camp can be termed an unqualified success, as players like Taylor Twellman, Clint Dempsey and Eddie Pope have done plenty to put themselves in the hunt for a spot on Arena's final roster. But even when you include those excellent performances, the individual who has done the most to help himself has been midfielder Kerry Zavagnin.
Sure, Twellman has gotten his goals, Dempsey has emerged as the kind of two-way midfielder that everyone covets, and Pope has turned back the clock with his performances in the center of defense. But when the camp began, at least these players could claim to be on the bubble for Germany.
Given Zavagnin's status as an alternate behind the likes of Ben Olsen and Brian Carroll, he needed the Hubble Telescope even to see the bubble. And with European-based players like Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien occupying a position similar to Zavagnin, his chances of making the final roster seemed about as likely as the "Dukes of Hazzard" getting an Oscar nomination.
But injuries to O'Brien and Pablo Mastroeni changed all that, allowing Zavagnin an opportunity to display his talent under the U.S. coach's watchful gaze. And in each of the three international friendlies that have been played this year, his steady play in a holding midfield role has put him on Arena's radar.
"[Zavagnin] has been very good since Day One," Arena said. "He offers a lot. He knows how to play the position. He's one of these guys that goes unnoticed and only makes your team better. His stock has risen considerably and given the circumstances in our entire pool, Kerry is going to be in there right until the end, when we're looking to finalize our roster."
Zavagnin's consistent play has long been a staple in Kansas City, and his previous stints with the national team have been positive, making his initial status as an alternate even more puzzling. That said, Zavagnin's recent progress might still not be enough, especially if the likes of O'Brien and Mastroeni recover in time. For that reason, he's concentrating only on the present.
"It's been my goal to make the 18-man [roster] every game," Zavagnin told Ussoccer.com. "So my ideas of making the final 23 haven't even entered my mind at this moment. I'm just trying to turn in as many good performances as I can and make the job for Coach Arena as difficult as possible."
Zavagnin's evolution is something that several of his international teammates will be trying to emulate this weekend against Guatemala. The match qualifies as one of the last chances for MLS players to impress Arena, especially since the two friendlies scheduled for March will be primarily for European-based players. And while the first month of the MLS season represents another opportunity to shine, it is unlikely that someone not already in Arena's sights will be able to break into the roster.
Fortunately, with the players from New England and Los Angeles occupied by the CONCACAF Champions Cup, there will be plenty of chances for playing time this Sunday. That is especially true on the attacking side of the ball, where Twellman's absence represents a major opportunity for the likes of Eddie Johnson, Brian Ching, and Chris Rolfe.
Johnson has long been on just about everybody's list to make the final cut, but a series of injuries has raised some serious doubts as to his position. A steady display this weekend will put those concerns to rest, and according to Arena, Johnson looks to have finally turned the corner.
"I think over the past week [Johnson] has finally, physically and psychologically, recovered from his turf toe injury," said Arena. "He suffered an injury in the game against Canada that set him back a couple weeks, but over the last week or so, we've seen some of the form that Eddie's had in the past. He's looking much sharper on the ball and he's much fitter, and because of that, he's confident."
The same can't be said of Ching, who has looked anything but confident in his last several national team appearances. It leaves one to wonder whether the upheaval surrounding his club team's relocation to Houston might be playing on his mind a bit. Ching was quick to dismiss those concerns prior to last week's match against Japan, but the bottom line is that he seems to be sliding down the depth chart. What's working in the Hawaiian's favor is his unique ability as a target man, but without some improved performances in the remaining friendlies, it seems doubtful those traits will be enough.
Rolfe has shown some solid play in limited minutes, his gaffe that led to Japan's second goal last Friday notwithstanding. But his speed and goal-scoring abilities would appear to be already duplicated by players like Josh Wolff, who bring other assets to the table as well.
An even bigger question surrounds the midfield, where the absences of Landon Donovan, Pat Noonan and Dempsey have created a vacuum that is begging to be filled. But in all likelihood, not even a performance of Frank Lampard-like proportions will be enough for the likes of Kyle Martino, Olsen and Santino Quaranta to resurrect their chances of going to Germany. That is, unless an injury glut of monumental proportions ensues.
Ditto for the goalkeeping situation, which will see either Zach Wells or Brad Guzan get his first cap. No matter how well either plays, both will be spending the summer in the States. It's almost as if the fans on Sunday will witness a tryout for the 2010 World Cup team instead of the 2006 edition.
Regardless of whom Arena trots out, at least six different players from the Japan game will be in the lineup against Guatemala, which makes matching the cohesiveness that was evident in the previous friendlies one of the bigger challenges the team will face. Arena is confident that it won't be an issue.
"I don't think there are going to be any excuses on our end," Arena said. "There is no reason why we can't put pressure on Guatemala and create goal scoring opportunities. I expect that. I see that out of these guys every day in training, so hopefully it carries over onto the field on Sunday."
And those players who are still on the bubble will be hoping for the same.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org