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Japan will provide a real test

SAN FRANCISCO -- Japan, the U.S. national team's opponent for Friday's match at SBC Park, may hail from the land of the Rising Sun, but scouts report that the team plays with a decidedly Samba beat. And after watching Japan's practice session on Thursday, that description is strikingly apt.

Quick combinations were the order of the day, while long passes were a rarity. During a half-field scrimmage, scoring wasn't enough. Each team seemed hell-bent on practically walking the ball into the net.

That style is a major departure from the Yanks' first two opponents in 2006. Canada and Norway were more direct in their approach, but Japan will be more patient in the attack, pressuring the ball all over the field and looking to take the game to the hosts. It should be the Americans' biggest test of 2006.

"[Japan] will be more aggressive," said U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "Norway was just content to defend, defend, defend, and then try to find something going forward. But Japan isn't going to sit back. They have no reason to. These are guys who are trying to make a World Cup team. They want to show something, and you can't do that by defending the whole game."

According to Japan's head coach, Zico, going on the offensive is exactly what the visitors intend to do, and he isn't worried about anything the U.S. has to offer. At this point, the Brazilian coach is more concerned about the state of the field and the relative indignity of playing in a baseball stadium. Especially after watching some of his players go through their paces as though they were wearing ice skates.

"For me, it's disappointing that the U.S. -- which is so strong and in a World Cup year -- is playing in a baseball stadium," said Zico through an interpreter. "Although in 1976, when I played a game [in the U.S.], it was really a baseball stadium. They still had the bases on the field, so it has improved a lot since then."

The same can also be said about the U.S. team, although Zico doesn't anticipate having to do anything out of the ordinary.

"There is no one special," said Zico. "The U.S. is a good team, but we're going to attack. Donovan is a famous player and very good, but we would never man-mark him. We'll play normally."

That, of course, depends on one's definition of normal. The team is expected to line up in a 3-6-1 alignment. That's not a typo. Indeed, it's the dreaded "Sampson Formation" that became the punch line for the Americans' World Cup debacle in 1998. In this instance, Tatsuhiko Kubo will be playing the part of Eric Wynalda as the lone striker, with Shinji Ono and Mitsuo Ogasawara in support as the attacking midfielders.

It's a formation the Japanese first used against Bahrain during World Cup qualification, and it's one that Zico is determined to try again. At the least, it should provide Japan with the ability to provide near-instant pressure to the U.S. midfield.

"With the players we have, this is the formation that works best," added Zico. "We need to negate [the Americans'] speed and take away their space. And we need to find our own rhythm."

Much of that responsibility will fall to Ono, who after enduring several injury-riddled campaigns with Dutch club Feyenoord, has returned home to play for the Urawa Reds. And Ono's performance in the most recent Japanese training camp has raised hopes that the World Cup veteran is regaining his best form. Those are expectations Ono is eager to validate.

"For the first time in a while, I am feeling nervous," said Ono through an interpreter. "I'm really looking forward to the match."

Another player the U.S. will need to watch is naturalized Brazilian Alessandro Santos, who is poised to start on the left side of midfield. Under the best of circumstances, Santos' marauding runs would be difficult to stop, but with Frankie Hejduk injured, the U.S. finds itself without an experienced right back on the roster.

When asked whether Hejduk's absence would force him to go to a three-back alignment, U.S. head coach Bruce Arena said there's a chance such a plan would be used and refused to elaborate further.

If Arena does go with three at the back, it would mean that D.C. United defender Bobby Boswell would probably earn his first cap, although it would cause a significant hole at left midfield. Another, more likely scenario would see the Yanks continue with a 4-4-2 formation, and have Chris Klein deputize at right back. This would allow the Americans to have some tactical continuity from their first two matches, and Klein saw 45 minutes of action at right back in the U.S.'s match against Canada on Jan. 22, giving the Real Salt Lake player a baptism of sorts.

Regardless of which scenario Arena chooses, his goal remains the same: to get another competitive game under his team's belt. This is especially important given the relative inexperience of his squad.

If Klein is included in the projected lineup, only three players -- Donovan, Eddie Pope, and Josh Wolff -- have more than 20 caps. Contrast this with Japan, in which each player in the predicted starting eleven has at least 26 caps. It amounts to a difficult test that Arena is thankful to have.

"To find games this time of year for a national team is very difficult," said Arena. "We're fortunate that our Japanese friends are on break from the J-League. And the reason we played Norway is because the Scandinavian leagues are on break. That's the reason we're playing these kinds of countries, because they are among the few that are available this time of year."

And if you can't play Brazil, you might as well get a team that mimics the Brazilian style.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com