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Oct 14, 2005

Arena seeks team chemistry

Bruce Arena has had more time than he expected to consider his options in preparing for Germany 2006. The lessons of four years ago taught Arena that he needs to balance experience with vibrancy, that physical well-being and the ability to recover from injury are crucial traits for prospective members of the team. Nor will Arena necessarily select the best U.S. players for the World Cup. Once Arena selects the 17 or so who will receive the bulk of the playing time, the criteria for picking the rest of the squad will be the ability to play as well as the ability to maintain a low profile and deport themselves as good citizens, and often cheerleaders. Those are the thoughts Arena expressed before the U.S. defeated Panama 2-0 at Gillette Stadium Wednesday night. Most of the world's better national teams are essentially all-star aggregations, the common denominator being the players' high level of competence, and often, a sense of nationalism. National team coaches at the elite level essentially manage the situation, absorb attention, act as diplomats and try to keep the team fresh mentally. National team coaches, in fact, are more accurately called managers or technical directors. They attempt to foster a club atmosphere with the national team, and this often provides an edge. Brazil is the best example, with its often relaxed approach to training and batucada bus rides, in which everyone plays a musical instrument on the way to the stadium. Managing the U.S. is a much different proposition. Arena was an excellent coach at the club and collegiate level and has a natural inclination toward cultivating a team feeling. "There are some players here who are not going to be playing [against Panama] but are still going be in position to make the World Cup team," Arena said the day before the match. "There are all sorts of variables. You have 11 starters which means you have 12 players who are not starting, and five or six of them never contribute. And they can't be the type of characters you don't want to have on the team. You see it in all sports, football players who walk off the field before the game is over, soccer players who do the same thing. It is important to develop team spirit. In theory, they are all elite players, but all of a sudden their roles change. You don't take the 23 best players. It doesn't work that way." Arena's focus has been on Germany since Sept. 3, when the U.S. defeated Mexico 2-0 to clinch a place in the finals. Arena might have been distracted as the U.S. visited Guatemala and Costa Rica, but he was purposeful before the Panama game, essentially ordering his team to win, which it did quite easily. Kyle Martino and Taylor Twellman scored their first international goals, which was especially important for Twellman, who had not scored for the U.S. in 13 previous matches. Arena auditioned Justin Mapp and said Brian Carroll "played extremely well" in midfield. But Arena was looking for other qualities as well. In the next few months, Arena will factor in the first-round opponents and other intangibles and variables, starting with training camp in January and home games Jan. 22, 29 and Feb. 9 or 11; a visit to Europe for games March 1 (undetermined opponent) and Germany March 22; an April home match using mostly domestic players; and three May home matches before setting up camp in Hamburg. Qualifying for the World Cup is a complicated proposition. The U.S. started this campaign June 13, 2004, against Grenada in Columbus and concluded with a 12-2-4 record, finishing in first place in the final group stage by edging Mexico on goal differential on the final day. Arena said after the game the coaching staff was "exhausted." "I can just imagine how the players feel," Arena said. "We have been on the road the entire year." The Gold Cup in July was an especially tiring exercise, and several U.S. players sustained long-term injuries. But Arena said he learned much about players' reactions in such an event, which is as close an approximation to the World Cup as they will have. The 2002 World Cup was also a major learning experience. Arena revealed that the U.S. changed tactics during the tournament, reacting to injuries, especially on the back line, and it is something he will concentrate on avoiding this time. In fact, John O'Brien and Claudio Reyna might be the only field players Arena would risk naming to the team if they were carrying injuries. "We played three backs in the last games of the [2002] World Cup and the reason was because of injuries," Arena said. "We started with eight backs. This time around we've got to have healthy bodies. If someone gets injured in April we may have to leave them off the roster. We've learned from experience."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .