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Jul 9, 2005

O'Brien returns to the mix

One can look at the United States national team's 4-1 victory over Cuba on Thursday night in two ways:

1. A group of mostly second- and third-team players underperformed for the majority of the match and were simply bailed out by three goals over a six-minute span before the final whistle. Not good, guys.

2. Bruce Arena got a chance to look at three uncapped players, a pair of older veterans trying to stay in the mix and a few others who are not regular starters. And the national team still won by a comfortable margin.

Whether you take the positive or negative approach, there's not too much time to break down the side's latest victory as the national team resumes play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup less than 48 hours after beating Cuba when they take on Canada on Saturday afternoon (4:30 p.m. ET) in Seattle.

This being tournament play, Arena is certainly going to use the entire 23-man roster. He wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't since these two-day turnarounds make it impossible to utilize only a core group of 14 or 15 players. So the fact that Jimmy Conrad, Brad Davis and Santino Quaranta all received their first cap on Thursday night wasn't such a surprise. What was a bit unexpected was that all three players started alongside several others who haven't been regulars as of late such as Chris Armas, Ben Olsen and Tony Sanneh.

It was a capable group, considering that three World Cup veterans were in the first XI, including PSV Eindhoven standout DaMarcus Beasley. It just seemed a bit odd to see Landon Donovan and even someone like Josh Wolff get a rest in the first match of what could be a six-match tournament through July 24 for the U.S.

Against the Canadians on Saturday, it should be a different story. Arena mentioned in his post-match comments that he'd be fielding a team that won't resemble the lineup that started against Cuba. That likely means that Donovan will start in the midfield and probably go the entire match, rather than come on in the 66th minute as he did on Thursday night. It also means that Lacey, Wash., native Kasey Keller will get in a match as the team's goalkeeper in front of his hometown crowd in place of Thursday night starter Marcus Hahnemann.

Steve Cherundolo and Steve Ralston - two regulars who did not see action against Cuba -- could possibly make up the team's right side with the Hannover 96 captain in the back and the New England Revolution standout running along the flank. Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Pope and Greg Vanney are also good bets to start in the back, with Onyewu likely paired with Pope in the center of the defense and Vanney out at left back. Pablo Mastroeni, who didn't dress as part of the 18-man roster against Cuba, seems likely to take up his usual spot as the team's holding midfielder on Saturday.

With Conor Casey the only player who won't be available due to the knee injury he suffered during the match on Thursday, Arena won't have a lot of options at forward. Wolff, who came on in the 76th minute against Cuba, will be in the lineup alongside either Pat Noonan or Beasley up top.

Of all the choices that Arena has to make for Saturday's match, the most intriguing one involves how he plays midfielder John O'Brien. Rehabbing all winter and spring from nagging hamstring and back injuries, the veteran made his first appearance for the side since March 29, 2003 when he entered the game in the 76th minute for Davis. The ADO den Haag signee is back in shape and has been training with the U.S. since mid-May. It's just now a question of getting himself match fit.

According to O'Brien, the decision to give him a start in the midfield against Canada was made going into the Gold Cup, which made his cameo against Cuba all the more satisfying.

"I'm definitely glad I got in," told O'Brien to ussoccer.com on Friday. "I kind of knew leading up to tomorrow that Bruce is looking at me to start a game. I'm missing a lot of rhythm, so I was definitely looking forward to just get out there. It takes some of the weight off for tomorrow."

O'Brien came in to the match when it was still a hard-fought affair at 1-1, so he felt that it was a valuable 15 minutes. Now the next step is trying to get through a full half of play in beyond.

"You need to get used to the games again," said O'Brien. "In practice we've been doing a lot of tight stiff - that helps. We've also been doing a lot of intra-squad scrimmages. That all helps. It's still a step up when it comes to the game intensity. I've done it before, but it's something I have to get used to it a bit and feel it out again."

O'Brien and his teammates will face a Canadian side that is coming off a tough 1-0 loss to Costa Rica on Thursday. The match was decided by a penalty kick in the 30th minute, which puts Canada behind the eight-ball if it hopes to advance out of Group B in the 12-team tournament. In order to keep their hopes alive, the Frank Yallop-coached side needs at least a point over the U.S. to have a legitimate chance of making the quarterfinals as one of the two top third-place teams that will move on to the knockout round next week.

Canada will be playing without captain Kevin McKenna, who was sent off in the 80th minute against the Ticos after receiving his second yellow card of the game. The veteran defender is a teammate of U.S. national team defender Gregg Berhalter for Energie Cottbus in the German Bundesliga, and is one of the most experienced players for the Canucks.

Yallop will rely on San Jose Earthquake striker Dwayne DeRosario up front, as well as Norwich midfielder Jim Brennan, who has the most caps of any player on the 19-man roster with 19 caps. Although he did not play against Costa Rica, the U.S. might have to keep an eye on powerful forward Olivier Occean, who plays for Odd Grenland in Norway. The former Southern Connecticut State star had a strong preseason for the MetroStars last winter before being offered a contract to play in Europe before the MLS season began.

A few of the U.S. players might remember Canadian goalkeeper Greg Sutton, as the 28-year-old saw action in five matches with the Chicago Fire in 1999 and 2000, and was a member of the MetroStars for a spell in 2000. He currently plays in the USL First Division with the Montreal Impact, where he was named the A-League's Goalkeeper of the Year in 2004.

One player the U.S. won't have to worry about is Fulham FC striker Tomasz Radzinski, who is tied with DeRosario for the most goals (7) amongst the most recent layer pool for Canada. The club teammate of Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra is not on the roster.

The match against Canada presents an opportunity for the U.S. to earn another three points and stay atop the group with Costa Rica to set up a match that will likely decide Group B on July 12 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

With Arena's top players expected to be on the field from the start for Saturday's match, the home side should be able to control the play and not have as many anxious moments than they did against Cuba for much of Thursday night.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.