With the United States having locked up World Cup qualification for the 2006 tourney (was there really anyone who thought they wouldn't?), all focus now turns to the makeup of the U.S. squad in Germany. As qualifiers are rendered virtually meaningless save for lineup experimentation, U.S. media and fans alike are relegated to playing the guessing game in terms of potential roster composition for the next nine months. The only thing that is certain at this point is that at least half the roster spots are up for grabs. Even so, if the squad were picked today, here's my take on it.
Coach Bruce Arena reportedly has said that of the 23 spots available for Germany, he considers 10 positions near-certain choices. Taking a stab at those names, I'll assume that the locks for the roster are Kasey Keller, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Johnson, Brian McBride, Eddie Lewis and Pablo Mastroeni. If not for continued concerns about his durability, John O'Brien also would be one of the aforementioned untouchables.
Extrapolating further, I'd predict Arena's roster for 2006 as follows:
Goalkeepers (3): A virtual no-brainer. Keller, Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann. The only question here is who will be Keller's primary backup, Howard or Hahnemann. After his performance against Guatemala, Hahnemann is definitely in the running for primary backup. The only other keeper even remotely in consideration at this point is New England's Matt Reis.
Defenders (8): Onyewu, Lewis, Carlos Bocanegra, Cory Gibbs, Cherundolo, Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk and Greg Vanney. At this point, Hejduk is in a battle with Chris Albright for a roster spot, but I think he edges Albright in Arena's eyes. I think the last spot comes down to Eddie Pope, Jimmy Conrad or Vanney. I think it'll be Vanney for two reasons: first, as insurance in case the Lewis-at-left-back experiment fails; and second, since Arena seems to have a higher regard for Vanney than is actually warranted.
Midfielders (8): Beasley, Reyna, O'Brien, Mastroeni, Chris Armas, Bobby Convey, Clint Dempsey, Steve Ralston. This group picks itself for the most part, but one of the question marks in this group is whether Arena opts for Armas. However, my guess is that he takes him since he thinks Armas brings unique intangibles to the table. The final spot probably boils down to Santino Quaranta or Ralston. Again, I think Arena opts for the veteran experience and guile of Ralston in this case.
Forwards (4): Donovan, McBride, Johnson and Taylor Twellman. The only issue here is who the fourth striker will be. If not for downtime, Brian Ching probably would be the front-runner, but assuming Twellman can avoid the untimely injury mishaps that have jinxed his national team career so far, I think Arena takes him over Jeff Cunningham.
That said, there's a difference between the squad I think Arena will name and the squad I think he should take. From my standpoint, I'd keep things predominantly the same, albeit with the following tweaks:
Goalkeepers (3): Keller, Howard, Hahnemann. No debate required here.
Defenders (8): Onyewu, Lewis, Bocanegra, Gibbs, Cherundolo, Jose Burciaga Jr., Chad Marshall and Albright. I think Lewis will work out fine at left back, but a pure left back is still needed for injury insurance, which is where inexplicably overlooked Burciaga comes into play. For the spot at backup right back, UCLA's Marvell Wynne is an intriguing prospect, although for now, the Galaxy's Albright is the safe choice.
With Bocanegra and impressive youngster Marshall in the mix at center back, there's no need to bring aging vets such as Berhalter or Pope. Highly touted Jonathan Spector remains an outside candidate for both center and left back, but he has yet to actually play a full heavy slate of games. With the U.S. depth in this area, it's hard to justify including him based on potential alone. Things could change if he stars on loan for Charlton in the English Premiership for the rest of the season, but right now I'd consider his inclusion a long shot.
Midfielders (8): Donovan, Beasley, Reyna, O'Brien, Mastroeni, Dempsey, Convey and Ricardo Clark. The first six are obvious automatic selections. A few months ago, I would have considered Convey's inclusion on this squad dubious, but his recent performances with Reading and the national team have made me more of a believer.
For the final spot, I'd go with San Jose's Clark over Armas. Clark has quietly had a superb season for the Quakes. At this stage of the two players' careers, Clark is more dynamic and athletic, has far more upside than Armas and can fill essentially the same role. You've got to love Armas' intangibles, but on a team with veteran leaders like Keller and Reyna, that shouldn't be a strong consideration. As for the calls for Justin Mapp and Quaranta, both are still a little too inconsistent and at times erratic for my tastes.
Forwards (4): Johnson, McBride, Ching, Brian West. The choice of Ching here is predicated on his returning to full health, and is based on his ability to provide insurance in the target man role McBride currently fills. If Ching's not healthy, then the spot probably goes to Twellman. However, at this point, one has to have legitimate fears that Twellman is headed down the path of prolific domestic league scorers who could not get it done at the national team level. History is littered with players like this (England's Robbie Fowler, Kevin Phillips and James Beattie, for example) and so far Twellman has been unable to come close to replicating his Revs form for the national team.
For the final forward spot, I think Arena needs to gamble. That gamble should be someone like ex-Columbus Crew player West, who currently plies his trade in Norway. West adds world-class speed to the mix and has improved dramatically of late. Although he's obviously not a pure winger, he also provides the added bonus of potentially being able to fill the troublesome right wing/midfield void.
The final question that remains is the inevitable one concerning Freddy Adu and whether he should make the squad. The answer to that should be a resounding no. Adu has improved a lot this season, but he's still nowhere near ready for the senior World Cup stage -- anyone who doubts that need only watch his mostly average performances at the recent U-20 World Championships again. There's no doubt Freddy's time will eventually come, but that time unfortunately is not now.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org