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Seattle sidelights

The 2003 schedule for the U.S. National Team is a lengthy one, featuring matches against the defending World Cup champion Brazil, World Cup semifinalist Turkey, arch-rival Mexico and several other top-notch soccer countries. On Saturday, Bruce Arena's squad will not be playing one of them.

Instead, they will take on Venezuela, a country that hasn't added a thing to South America's longstanding soccer tradition. They are the L.A. Clippers, the Arizona Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays rolled up into one.

Although Richard Paez has done yeoman's work with his squad over the past few years, including a current streak of 436 minutes without surrendering a goal, the match this weekend (ESPN2, Sat., 4 p.m. ET) will more resemble USA's 4-0 win over Canada in January than the 1-0 loss to Argentina in February.

The most important part of the match this weekend? The fact that there is a match at all.

With Japan canceling late last week due to concerns over the War in Iraq, the U.S. Soccer Federation was fortunate to find an opponent that would be willing enough to play on such short notice.

No matter what sort of team Venezuela puts out onto the field at Seahawks Stadium in Seattle, there are a few intriguing U.S. sidelights to watch for.

Which Jovan Kirovski will show up?
When on his game, Kirovski is a dangerous striker with a cannon of a right foot and a nose for the goal, who can play both with his back to the net or as a withdrawn striker. When not on his game, he slows down the attack and often is responsible for the opposition's counterattacks.

Having a fairly good season with Birmingham City in the English Premiership, Kirovski is being given yet another chance by Arena to prove he belongs in the U.S. pool.

It's a good decision, too, considering the shortage of internationally-experienced strikers in the U.S., and the fact that Kirovski just turned 27.

Many who have criticized the Escondido, Calif., native or have written him off in the past forget that he's still so young. That's easy to do since he's been in the U.S. pool since he was 17, and has remained in the same capacity - FRINGE player - for so many years.

If Kirovski is to play, which is to be expected in the second half, this will be a big chance for him to make some noise in hopes of staying on Arena's radar screen for this summer's Confederations Cup in France and CONCACAF Gold Cup.

How will the veterans link with the younger players?
For all the young players who have been prominently involved with the National Team since November, this week must have served as an eye opener.

Getting the chance to practice with experienced pros such as Frankie Hejduk, Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, John O'Brien and Earnie Stewart is one thing, but seeing how players like Hejduk, McBride and Stewart operate is another.

Whether or not all three players are in Arena's long-term plans, they are as fit and hard-working as one will ever find in the sport.

Their infectious spirit and work habits can only rub off on Kyle Martino, Edson Buddle, Bobby Convey and Nick Garcia the way they did on Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley in the run up to the 2002 World Cup.

If he plays (groin injury), watch for the positioning of O'Brien. Perhaps now is an appropriate time to try him in a more central role, perhaps even in front of Pablo Mastroeni as an attacking midfielder. Maybe he'll even pair with Mastroeni as defensive midfielders with Landon Donovan in front of them in a 3-5-2.

Obviously, Arena always has the option to play him as a left back should he not use Carlos Bocanegra in such a spot this time out. Either way, O'Brien offers an instant upgrade and boost of creativity to the side we've seen thus far in 2003.

The Columbus Crew striking tandem
McBride and Buddle have already connected for a few goals in their short time together this preseason.

Being a tall and strong figure like McBride, Buddle is looked at as somewhat of an heir apparent as a target striker.

Yet, it's wrong for anyone to look at the 21-year-old as merely a target player, as the 21-year-old has technical abilities and quickness with and without the ball that far exceed that of a prototypical, defense-stretching target striker.

Arena was in the stands when Buddle tore through D.C. United's defense for two goals and an assist in just one half of a preseason scrimmage down in Florida.

Don't think the vision of him spinning on Mike Petke at the top of the box, megging another defender and calmly beating the keeper didn't stay with the U.S. coach when he was selecting his roster for this match.

Donovan and McBride will likely start the match, yet it's almost a given that Buddle will get his first cap as a second half substitute. If you haven't seen him play, make a point to tune in or give the TiVo some work.

With McBride back in the mix with Columbus and a much-improved Kyle Martino playmaking behind him, Buddle will strike the back of the nets several times in 2003. It wouldn't surprise me to see such a thing happen on Saturday if given the proper chance.

The central defense pairing
If Arena goes with the team's usual 4-4-2 formation, this might be the first chance to see a Bocanegra-Pope pairing in the central defense (perhaps flanked by Cherundolo and Hejduk).

This duo will likely be the starting pair throughout the summer, as well as for the future, depending on where Gregg Berhalter fits into Arena's plans.

Bocanegra has played well with Dan Califf and Nick Garcia in the past as the leader of the defense, so it'll be interesting to see how the 23-year-old pairs with a stronger player like Pope, who will run the back four.

Saturday's match won't be as competitive as it would have been with Japan on the other side of the field, but it will give Arena a chance to look at some new -- and some old - players in different roles.

It will also give the always-growing soccer community of Seattle a chance to prove that its new stadium is a venue to be reckoned with and add to the growing stable of usual destinations (Columbus, New England, RFK) used by the various National Teams in this country.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for He can be reached at