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French lesson

Of the 23 players that Bruce Arena brought to France to represent the U.S. at the Confederations Cup, only two veterans -- Frankie Hejduk and Earnie Stewart -- were a part of the World Cup squad in 1998 that laid a goose egg over there.

Five years later, the Americans find themselves on the other end of the spectrum. The U.S. is not considered one of the game's true elite sides yet, but it's also not too far behind after making the World Cup quarterfinals last summer. Elite with training wheels, perhaps? Sure thing.

No matter what is accomplished over the next few weeks as far as wins and losses, the important part of their inclusion in this oddly-timed FIFA cash cow of an event is how Arena's players perform.

For many, this will be the first time that they'll share the field with Brazil (Sat., 3 p.m. ET). So what if Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo are off sunning themselves on vacation. The list of internationals who have been thrown off their games just by seeing the famed golden colors of Brazil in the pregame warmup is a long one, as well as the undeniable fact that the squad that's representing the defending World Cup champions will be the favorite in each game they play.

Not a bad idea for a Kyle Martino or a Dan Califf or a Taylor Twellman or a Cory Gibbs to see first-hand what that's all about, is it?

That's exactly what the U.S. is after here, too: gaining tournament experience for its next group of 20-somethings.

At this point, we're obviously not talking about Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, but other regulars such as Carlos Bocanegra, Chris Klein, Bobby Convey and Califf, who have plenty of experience with the U.S. National Team, but little-to-none in tournament play or in World Cup qualifying.

Everyone will get that, as well, considering the U.S. will play a grueling schedule of three games in five days against a World Cup semifinalist in Turkey (Thurs., 1 p.m. ET), the defending World Cup champions in Brazil two days later and a match against the two-time defending African champion, Cameroon, on Monday.

"It gives me a great opportunity to evaluate some of our players as we prepare for not only the Gold Cup in July," said Arena, "but also World Cup qualifying, which we anticipate will start next January."

Not a lot of time left, is there? Most of us are still tired from the TV-viewing schedule last June, to be honest. But that's international soccer these days. Everyone is included -- ca-ching! -- which makes each friendly or mini-tournament important for players to make their mark and gain a call-up to the next camp.

In looking at the U.S. squad position by position, it's clear that several players are in need of truly showing they can perform with an American jersey on their backs.

The biggest thing for Joe Cannon and Marcus Hahnemann is how they perform in training, since Tim Howard is expected to get the bulk of the work in the tournament. Arena said last week that it's not a certainty that Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller will both be around for the 2006 World Cup -- yeah, right -- so it's essential to deepen the pool of shot-stoppers even more than it already is.

Cannon and Hahnemann will have to wow the coaching staff to jump ahead of Nick Rimando and Adin Brown in the battle of the U.S. second-tier goalkeepers after two of the world's best in Friedel and Keller, and rising star Howard.

"It is hard for me after our first two to really place them in any kind of order," said Arena. "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 as well."

With Eddie Pope out due to a broken kneecap, this tournament gives both Bocanegra and Gregg Berhalter a chance to run the defense out of the centerback position.

Both are good leaders and strong on the ball. Berhalter has proved in the past that he can play at such a level, especially last year in a friendly against Italy and again in the summer against Mexico in the World Cup.

For Bocanegra, it's more about getting the experience against quality opponents, as it's clear that he'll be in the mix for many years to come. Arena has the luxury of trying the 24-year-old with a variety of different players at centerback, and as a left back, where he plays for the Chicago Fire.

Califf has also been a regular on the squad since Nov. of 2002. He's been impressive at times, but will be watched closely in such conditions against a variety of skillful players who will have a speed and quickness advantage.

Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk will surely share time out at right back. While Cherundolo is still a cusp player for the U.S. and always having to earn his keep due to up-and-down performances, Arena knows what he gets each time with Hejduk.

"He's played in two World Cups and wants to play in the third one," said Arena of the 28-year-old Columbus Crew defender. "He has definitely proven to me that he is a big game player and he's a reliable guy. He's a guy you can count on."

The interesting name in this mix is that of Gibbs, a 23-year-old who plays for F.C. St. Pauli in Germany. He's another tall and lanky central defender like Pope and Berhalter, and has plenty of ball skills to go with his size. After just getting his first cap against New Zealand in the 2-1 victory on June 8 -- and nearly scoring on a lefty shot off the post from a corner kick -- he'll surely be given a look.

Greg Vanney will see time as the left back after a good outing against New Zealand. He excels in playing balls out of the back either up the flank or to the strikers. His partnership on the left side of the field with Lewis was effective against New Zealand, as they often seemed to interchange. When Lewis would pinch in, Vanney moved up to take over the space closer to the touchline. His precise ball out of the back to Lewis in stride in the 30th minute of that match is an element out of that position the U.S. hasn't been getting in 2003.

One member of Arena's coaching staff has quietly said that they see a world of promise in the playmaker Kyle Martino, but are not sure if he's ready for this level yet. The 22-year-old may end up being one of the few players who doesn't earn a start in this tournament, but the surroundings alone will help him gain experience.

"I think just having him with us, giving him the opportunity to witness this type of competition is going to help him develop as a player," said Arena.

Chris Klein is a player who is no stranger to the National Team, but only has 12 caps to his credit. Even though two of his caps came in World Cup qualifying before he tore his ACL in 2001, Arena has cited him as a player who is "getting his first opportunity in competition at this level."

The right midfielder is a workhorse of great character, which fits perfectly into Arena's style. Not only is he strong at crossing, but he has a nose for the goal, which has been seen with his three tallies in his five starts and six overall games played for the U.S. this year. He has the opportunity to be a staple in the lineup.

The U.S. is in good shape at defensive midfielder with Pablo Mastroeni and Chris Armas. The only question is whether they see the field at the same time or not.

In the attacking midfielder role, the options are plenty. Arena could use either Donovan, Earnie Stewart, Clint Mathis, Bobby Convey or Martino there. It's likely to be the 21-year-old San Jose star, who is being counted on as a leader due to his already vast experience of playing in 35 international matches after playing in more games (20) and logging more minutes (1,563) than any other American player in 2002.

"I expect Landon to step up and emerge as one of our key players in this next four-year cycle," said Arena. "Landon continues to impress me. He is also a player who is versatile enough to play in both in the midfield and up front. That remains to be an issue that we need to deal with inside this team to see where we need to put him to make our team the best team possible.

After his strong performance against New Zealand, Eddie Lewis will certainly share time with DaMarcus Beasley as a left-sided midfielder.

The 29-year-old Preston North End standout was effective throughout the entire match against the Kiwis, and played with an added confidence and well-roundedness that was once not a part of his game. Seemingly every time he touched the ball, good things happened. His long through-ball to Klein for a first-half goal was perfectly-timed, and a few other crosses he sent in should have gone for goals.

The two men to watch might be Convey, 20, and Stewart, 34, who happen to be the team's youngest and oldest players, respectively.

For Convey, it'll be anyone's guess where he'll play in this tournament. He could play on the left side of the midfield, in the center of the park or at left back. Either way, he makes things happen when he's in the match and is someone the U.S. will rely on in qualifying. Getting him more caps -- he has 9 -- is a priority for Arena.

With Stewart, it's likely he'll be used as a second-half substitute. He always adds a different element to the attack and a bolt of experience and leadership. He's here to aid the team, simply put.

"We have one veteran here where clearly I don't think I am going to see that much else out of Earnie Stewart," said Arena, "except the fact that we continue to see that he can help us even at 34 years old."

The starting front-runner tandem against New Zealand - Jovan Kirovski and Taylor Twellman -- represents two players who still have a lot to prove at the international level.

Kirovski has worn a U.S. shirt dozens and dozens of times since 1994. For every good performance he's had - remember his blazing shot against Germany in '99? - there are a string of frustrating days on the field.

If there is an enigma in U.S. Soccer, it is Kirovski. He has both the size and skills to play as either a target striker or in a more withdrawn role, and is effective with his back towards the goal and away from the goal. It's his lack of consistency -- not to mention his up-and-down professional career overseas -- that has kept him from being a no-bones-about-it call-up for each important U.S. match.

Against New Zealand, it was much of the same. The 27-year-old was credited for the winning goal when his cross to the box deflected into the Kiwi net, but he should have had several goals. There were at least three times when he failed to finish on opportunities that someone like a Brian McBride would have done so. Another time, he shanked a cross over the net when he was simply unopposed on the right side. That can't happen. For Kirovski, a good tournament is needed.

Twellman is a player that the U.S. coaching staff likes, yet has quietly wondered whether the game is too fast for him at the international level. For someone like the 23-year-old Revolution striker that works for his strike partner and can finish when set up, it's important that he see time with creative players like Donovan and Mathis in order to truly evaluate his game at this level. With three games in five days, every striker will be counted on, so Twellman will have his chance to shine.

Jeff Cunningham provides speed and finishing ability up top. Coming into the tournament, the Crew striker only has eight caps for the U.S., with his most meaningful international matches coming in last year's Gold Cup. With Josh Wolff and Edson Buddle getting healthy and back into the mix, Cunningham will need to play well to improve his standing in the U.S. pool.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for he can be reached at: