Rich in tenacity
Of all the 18 players on Bruce Arena's roster sheet for Thursday night's clash against Mexico, perhaps the most intriguing name of the bunch is that of San Jose midfielder Rich Mulrooney.
The former Creighton star is far from being a National Team neophyte, as he has six caps to his credit, including two earlier this year that came in his first live action since fracturing an ankle last September. He was also one of the last cuts from last summer's World Cup squad after enjoying a solid spring with Arena's squad.
What makes his inclusion for this match surprising is due to the fact that both Chris Armas and Pablo Mastroeni are, as expected, on the roster as well. And all three players are defensive midfielders.
Considering that Frankie Hejduk is the only right back candidate on the roster leads one to believe that Mulrooney could see time there, or is at least in the battle for a backup role in such a position. It's a position that he played for the U.S. as a starter against Honduras and Ecuador last March.
"Wherever he wants to put me, I'm fine with it," says Mulrooney, who is in his fifth season with the Earthquakes. "In the buildup to the World Cup last year he had me at right back for a couple of games, and I thought I did fine. In the last game against Mexico (before the World Cup) last year, I started at defensive midfielder against them and I thought I did ok. Whatever the role is, I accept it. If he wants me to start at right back, hey, I'll go in and play 90 minutes there."
The right back spot for the National Team has been a bit of a conundrum the last few years.
Tony Sanneh, who remains in Germany with FC Nurnberg, looked uncomfortable there for three straight years until he suddenly came to life last May.
In three home friendlies, he beat out Hejduk for the starting job at the World Cup, where he continued his outstanding play and was one of the true heroes for the U.S. throughout its run to the quarterfinals.
Since the World Cup, Arena tried a similar type of experiment with a tall midfielder by inserting L.A. Galaxy's Sasha Victorine at right back for the first few post-World Cup friendlies. When he proved that he was not the answer, 24-year-old Steve Cherundolo was summoned from Germany to man the spot.
When Mulrooney was in camp during the winter, Arena played him in the middle in both games and throughout scrimmages at practice. Not once did he get a look at right back. But then again, that was while Victorine was still in the mix, which may change the situation.
"The right back spot is more open than the center midfield spot" admits Mulrooney, who has also seen time at right midfield for the U.S.
What helps Mulrooney's chances, in addition to his versatility, is the blend he offers. He has a nice mix of skill and precision passing to go along with a tenacity and hardness that is needed in international soccer.
He may look like Richie Cunningham and not scare anyone with his size (5-foot-9, 160 pounds), but he's among the league's best tacklers in the middle of the field and is a tough player to turn on with the ball.
For Mulrooney, who has been playing well with San Jose despite tougher conditions due to the injury of his midfield partner and team maestro Ronnie Ekelund (ankle surgery), this match and the preceding training sessions in Houston gives him a chance to prove himself in hopes of making both the Confederations Cup (June 18-29) and Gold Cup (July 12-27) rosters. If he gets the call to play as a defensive midfielder, at right back or as an all-around utility player, he'll be ready.
"Every time you're in camp, you're getting evaluated," says the Memphis, Tenn., native. "And if you have a bad camp, you might not be back. I take every camp as serious as possible. I want to be in France, no doubt about it. I want to be part of that 18. Same goes for the Gold Cup. So this week may make or break me. I'm not one of the older guys, but I'm not one of the younger guys either. I'm 26. I'm not going to give another person the opportunity to beat me out because I had a bad week."
If Mulrooney impresses Arena this time around, he'll be a player to watch in upcoming friendlies against Wales (May 26) and New Zealand (June 8) as he fights for a right to represent his country in two major tournaments this summer.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.