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Jun 1, 2004

Foxboro focal points

When the U.S. National Team hosts Honduras on Wednesday night at Gillette Stadium, it'll presumably be playing against a side that'll challenge for a berth in the 2006 World Cup right down until the end of qualifying in late 2005.

During World Cup qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, the Hondurans finished fourth in CONCACAF - just three points behind the United States and Mexico, and one place away from getting its ticket punched to Korea/Japan.

During that process, they made matters much more difficult for the Americans with their stunning 3-2 victory in Washington, D.C. in September of 2001, which was the only time during that final round of qualifying that an opponent came into the U.S. and left with either a win or a tie.

This time around, the Catrachos have soccer's grand nomad, Bora Milutinovic, on the sideline, looking to work his usual magic.

As the first coach to steer five teams into the World Cup, including the U.S. in 1994, it's hard to imagine that Bora won't get the most out of his new side, and has it well-prepared against the U.S., as well as later this month when the team takes on Netherlands Antilles in a home-and-home series on June 12 and 19.

Yet, at the same time, each team is a mystery right now, which is why U.S. manager Bruce Arena is not taking anything for granted against Honduras on Wednesday, or later this month when the U.S. opens up its World Cup qualifying efforts with a home-and-home series with Grenada.

"It's too early to make judgments on anyone," said Arena by phone on Tuesday evening. "Qualifying will tell us where everybody stands. At this point in time everyone has a clean slate, everyone is excited and everyone is hopeful. We need to go through the process to really see where each country stands when the dust settles."

With that first match against Grenada looming on June 13 in Columbus, the match against Honduras is serious business.

It represents the last chance for some players to impress Arena enough to make the roster for that first qualifier, as well as present Arena an opportunity to experiment with player combinations now that his European-based players are done with league play and are back home.

Here are five things to watch for on Wednesday night:

1. Striker pairing(s)
Since Taylor Twellman, Josh Wolff and Jovan Kirovski were not called in for this match, there aren't too many options to look at. In addition, Clint Mathis is unlikely to play since he suffered a bruised heel in training on Tuesday. That leaves Conor Casey, Landon Donovan and Brian McBride to choose from up top.

With Donovan expected to play as an attacking midfielder as he did in his standout performance against Mexico last month, the duo that's likely to start the match is Casey and McBride. It's a partnership that hasn't been seen as of yet, and one that's intriguing considering the size of both players, who each stand at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds.

"There are similarities there, but they are still different players," said Arena. "Most people that really don't have the ability to see what each player offers just sees their stature when determining what kind of players they are. They're both big strong forwards, but Conor has different qualities than Brian, and vice versa. If we see them on the field together -- whenever that happens -- I think they can be compatible."

If Casey and McBride do start as a tandem against Honduras, expect to see McBride play higher in his usual target forward slot, with Casey playing a bit underneath, utilizing his skills with the ball and passing ability.

2. The European-based players
Of the 18 players in camp, 10 have just completed their seasons in various leagues around Europe. Despite the fact that most of those players have gone eight or nine straight months without much of a break, Arena doesn't think fatigue is a factor. That is, except for Tim Howard, who has been playing non-stop since MetroStars preseason training in March of 2003 right through the FA Cup final for Manchester United on May 22.

"The only one that really concerns me is Howard," he said. "It's been a year-and-half, and quite a long haul, so he's going to need a break after this game."

Howard is expected to start this match, as he won't be joining the U.S. during the Grenada series. It not only allows Arena to give the English Premier League goalkeeper of the year a rest, but also provides a chance for Kasey Keller and Tony Meola -- the two keepers called in for the June 13 match -- as well as possibly Jonny Walker and Brad Friedel, once healthy again, over the next two matches.

In addition to Howard, the U.S. could very well feature an all European-based back-four against Honduras with Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96) on the right, Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham) and Tony Sanneh (F.C. Nurnberg) in the middle and Greg Vanney (F.C. Bastia) on the left. In the midfield, both Claudio Reyna (Manchester City) and Eddie Lewis (Preston North End) are likely to start, with the aforementioned tandem of Casey (FSV Mainz) and McBride (Fulham) up top.

3. Where Pablo plays
Colorado Rapids defender Pablo Mastroeni is coming off a spectacular performance in the victory over Mexico in late April when he was paired in the central defense with Eddie Pope. Centerback is a position that is relatively thin now that Jeff Agoos and Carlos Llamosa are no longer in the picture, which makes Mastroeni's recent play there even more of a positive development. But Arena still views him as a player who can help the side as a holding midfielder, as he did for the team during the 2002 World Cup.

"He can play both in the midfield and in the back," he said. "That's the way we're going to utilize him this year."

4. Captain Claudio goes for his 100th cap
Claudio Reyna is expected to earn his 100th cap as a member of the U.S. National Team when he takes the field against Honduras. He'll join an exclusive group of six other players: Jeff Agoos, Marcelo Balboa, Paul Caligiuri, Cobi Jones, Joe-Max Moore and Eric Wynalda. Reyna has played with each of those men during his National Team career that started on Jan. 15, 1994 against Norway. As fate would have it, his 100th cap will come against the same coach who he played for in '94 in Bora Milutinovic, as well as for a coach who has known him for 15 years.

"I've seen him experience so much in his life," said Arena, who was Reyna's coach at the University of Virginia for three years (1991-93), all of which resulted in NCAA championships. "From the academic end to watching him get married and have children to being a successful professional to being captain of the World Cup team. So the 100th cap is just icing on the cap with his career with the National Team.

"He's brought me so many highlights over the last decade. This is just another one to add to the list, really. But I think it's obviously very special to him, and it's very rewarding. It's a tremendous accomplishment."

5. Shutting down the Honduran attack
Both teams enter this match worrying about their own sides since qualifying looms in less than two weeks. But that doesn't mean a result will be meaningless. For the U.S., momentum is important, for one. In addition, it's important to continue to send a message to the other CONCACAF nations that they are the class of the region. Beating Mexico in April without having all but one European-based player (Casey) helped drive that point home.

To leave the Big Razor with a victory, the Americans will have to handle a very dangerous group of attackers. At the center of the attack is MetroStars attacking midfielder Amado Guevara, who will pull the strings and look to playmake just as he does for Bob Bradley. Two strikers who are no strangers to the U.S. side -- Milton Nunez and Carlos Pavon -- should be a handful, as well.

However, the player that worries Arena the most is Julio Cesar de Leon, who played for both Reggina and Fiorentina in Italy this past season.

"De Leon is the key to their team," said Arena. "He makes them different on the field. He played with them last game, and he's just a terrific player. Obviously, Guevara is important, as well as Pavon, but I think de Leon is the real key."

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.