Six to keep an eye on
Talk about having a rough tryout.
The U.S. national team's victory against Mexico on Saturday not only clinched their fifth straight World Cup appearance, it also assured some fringe national team players of a chance at showing Bruce Arena what they can do in some matches that still are meaningful and held in hostile environments.
Gentlemen, welcome to Guatemala.
Bruce Arena's MLS-heavy roster for Wednesday night's World Cup qualifier is what most expected, a collection of untested internationals who will either give Arena new options to consider for the World Cup or will leave the American coach wondering whether he should just fill out his roster with some veterans who might be past their best.
Arena couldn't ask for a better proving ground than a road match in Guatemala with the Central Americans in desperate need of a victory to keep their World Cup hopes alive. Toss in the fact that the U.S. team has just one win in Guatemala (1-4-2 with the ties coming in the past two meetings) and you have a match that might break or break some players.
Who are the players to watch for in Wednesday night's showdown, and in the U.S. team's remaining qualifiers? Here are a six to keep an eye on:
Taylor Twellman -- After taking over for Jason Kreis as the best American MLS striker to not get a hard look by the national team, Twellman will surely have his chance to show Arena what he can do. He offered a glimpse in the team's win against Trinidad & Tobago last month, when a clear goal was ruled offside. Twellman makes smart runs, is solid in the air, and is fearless enough to press defenders into fouls. The question is whether he has the speed to succeed on the international level. The remaining opponents on the qualifying schedule, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama, might not be the toughest to break down but the atmosphere of playing in two road qualifiers should be enough to give us a sense of where Twellman stands.
Jeff Cunningham -- After playing his way back into consideration, Cunningham insists that he has become a more polished player and doesn't rely solely on his athletic gifts any more. If this is true, and his terrorizing of MLS defenses to the tune of 11 goals suggests it, Cunningham could be the new Cobi Jones, a late-game sub with speed to burn and moves to frustrate defenses. Whether he can parlay that into consideration for starting time remains to be seen, but Cunningham has the most upside of the American forwards who have not already established themselves (Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Josh Wolff).
Chad Marshall -- Last year this Crew defender had the look of a future star. This season, at least in the first half of the season, Marshall played in a funk like the rest of his teammates. He is still a quality prospect, combining size, strength, speed and a toughness that some suggested wasn't there before he reached the league. Marshall just turned 21 in August and should be a fixture on the national team in the future. Just the thought of adding his 6-foot-3 frame to a defense that could include young mountain Oguchi Onyewu and the 6-foot-3 Cory Gibbs must make Arena's mouth water. Marshall will have his chance in the coming weeks to show whether he is worth a roster spot in Germany. That is if he doesn't lose his passport again.
Pablo Mastroeni -- I know what you're thinking, Mastroeni has already established himself. He has already gone to the World Cup and played well. This is true, but what remains to be seen is if Mastroeni can handle an increased role on the team. With John O'Brien injured and Claudio Reyna the only American central midfielder capable of controlling the tempo of a game, Mastroeni has shown enough quality to be considered as an option to handle that task. The only problem with him taking over that role is that, when healthy, Mastroeni is the national team's best defensive midfielder. Landon Donovan would probably be called on to handle Reyna's role if anything happened to the U.S. captain, and Bobby Convey has improved dramatically in recent months. Even with that cover, having Mastroeni round out his game can only make the U.S. team stronger.
Santino Quaranta -- One of the revelations of the Gold Cup, Quaranta has the look of a special player and gives the U.S. team a quality right midfield prospect. Steve Ralston's re-emergence gives the Americans some options at a position that was once considered the weakest in the U.S. pool (alongside left back, where Eddie Lewis has emerged). Quaranta should see considerable time in the upcoming qualifiers because his willingness to go at defenders and quality crossing ability are strengths that need to be honed in high-pressure environment of road qualifiers.
There are other players who have great chances to improve their standing, such as Jimmy Conrad, Chris Albright and Matt Reis, but the aforementioned six players are the ones who could give Arena the most complete roster possible heading into the 2006 World Cup.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com