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Zavagnin zeroes in on starting role

WASHINGTON -- It's an odd sight to watch the U.S. National Team prepare for a World Cup qualifying match without seeing either captain Claudio Reyna or Chris Armas on the field.

The two veterans started as a central midfield pairing at the outset of qualifying back in June during both matches of the home-and-home series with Grenada, but have yet to take the field together since.

Armas had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in July and has only recently begun playing with the Chicago Fire.

Meanwhile, a strained quadriceps muscle prevented U.S. manager Bruce Arena from calling in Reyna for the team's upcoming matches against El Salvador this coming Saturday on the road and against Panama on Oct. 13 back here at the nation's capital.

Without Reyna and Armas -- two players who have a combined 163 caps for the Americans -- Arena's options to play as a defensive midfielder now come down to two players: Kerry Zavagnin and Pablo Mastroeni.

Since Zavagnin got the start the last time out against El Salvador in the team's 2-0 victory at Gillette Stadium back on Sept. 4, he appears to be the front-runner to play in such a role.

"There is a chance Kerry could be in our first eleven," said Arena last week during a conference call with reporters.

When asked to compare the two players after Tuesday morning's training session at American University, Arena said that Mastroeni is a stronger ball-winner and is more aggressive, but that Zavagnin offers the team other qualities better than Mastroeni does.

"Kerry is a little bit more cerebral than I'd say Pablo is, and probably a little bit better passer of the ball and a little bit more comfortable in that spot," said Arena. "He's basically played it his whole career. Pablo's been in and out of different spots."

While Zavagnin has only eight career caps -- six of which have come this year -- compared to the 30 that Mastroeni has, his strong play for the Western Conference-leading Kansas City Wizards has made him a regular with the National Team and a player who appears the most likely to push Armas for a starting role next to Reyna as World Cup qualifying continues.

"I've watched Kerry pretty closely for the last four years," said Arena, who gave the Plymouth, Michigan, his first cap back in October of 2000 in a friendly against Mexico. "He's a good player in that position. The other player in the league, obviously, that we would look at is Rich Mulrooney. They've all been pretty good. You can choose any one of them and they're all pretty solid players."

The next step for Zavagnin is to start in a road qualifier - something he hasn't done as of yet. In the away leg against Grenada, Zavagnin played the last 10 minutes. While he made the last two trips to Jamaica and Panama, respectively, he did not see time.

This isn't an Eddie Gaven or an Eddie Johnson we're looking at, though. At 30 years old with seven seasons of MLS play behind him, he's not a wet-behind-the-ears teenager or a player that Arena fears will wilt under the intense pressure of playing in a place as hostile as San Salvador's Estadio Cuscatlan is expected to be on Saturday night.

"That's diminished," said Arena, citing his experience at the pro level and recent contributions to the side.

Zavagnin downplayed the fact that he hasn't started in a road qualifier, as well.

"I think that I've had a lot of experience in MLS and I've now got a lot of experience at the international level," he said. "I'm looking at it as just another game and another opportunity to perform. That's the only way I've approached coming into these camps as well as coming into these games."

What's also helped Zavagnin blossom in 2004, both for club and country, was getting the chance to play with the National Team during back-to-back training camps last December and January.

He said it helped prepare his body for the rigors of a long MLS season better than ever before in his career. It also made him realize that he needed to work on playing the ball forward a lot quicker as the pace dictates it at the international level.

As the year has gone on, he's also been able to watch a player like Reyna up close and borrow from his game.

"He's very efficient on the ball," said Zavagnin, who played against Reyna in college when they were at the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia, respectively, in the early nineties.

"From an outsider's view, it might like look he's waltzing around the field at times, but he reads the game so well and has always been such a good passer of the ball. I think what I've taken from him is noticing how he sees things going forward, and playing balls forward early. That's actually something that I've tried to take and bring into Kansas City. I've gotten better at it this year, but there's still a ways to go."

While Zavagnin would like to find the seams that Reyna is able to find during a match -- who wouldn't? -- it is his other qualities that have resulted in his transformation from a fringe player on the edge of the 50-player pool to a bona-fide "regular," which is exactly where he stands at the moment.

"In individual meetings I've had with Bruce, he's pointed out my ability to communicate and organize the players around me," said Zavagnin. "That's one of my strengths. We don't have a lot of players that do that, which makes it all the more important for me to do that when I'm on the field. That's something I can bring to a game that perhaps an outsider wouldn't see."

Arena has also stressed to him that keeping possession of the ball is paramount to his role, especially in these qualifiers. And that doesn't necessarily mean making short, square passes all the time or moving the ball from one side of the field to the other just for the sake of it. The goal for him now is to do something positive.

"There's a fine line between making a simple pass and making a productive pass," he said. "And that's something I'm working on right now."

If he can link with Landon Donovan, Conor Casey, Brian McBride and the rest of the U.S. goal-scorers just as he has with Josh Wolff, who is here with the National Team as well, and Davy Arnaud with the Wizards, he'll surely serve his country well.

Hopefully, the opportunity presents itself," he said. "Whenever it does, I know I'm going to be ready."

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN He can be reached at: