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Feb 15, 2006

Arena keeps hope alive with roster strategy

U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena insisted during a conference call Tuesday that the World Cup roster is far from set. But despite a productive six-week training camp and an 8-2 goal differential in three friendly matches, it is becoming clear that only a few "bubble" candidates have significantly raised their chances of making the team.

Clint Dempsey finally has established himself in an identifiable role. Taylor Twellman has confirmed his finishing ability. Josh Wolff has impressed Arena.

But there simply are not many openings for domestic players on this team. Landon Donovan and Eddie Pope are locks. Frankie Hejduk is likely as Steve Cherundolo's backup. Eddie Johnson and Pablo Mastroeni are sure things if they are healthy.

The best the rest could do was place themselves in position for an emergency call-up, and it is highly unlikely that will change even if someone has a breakout game against Guatemala in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday.

But, if there are few opportunities for breakthroughs onto the World Cup roster, this is not at all a discouraging development for soccer in the United States because it indicates an expansion of the national player pool. The fact is, the best competition is in Europe, and the best players from every country are going there. It is encouraging that the United States could present a competent team of MLS players during the league's offseason.

No country's soccer situation compares with the United States. But if Argentina and Brazil were to present a national team of home-based players, they too would have success against Canada, Japan and Norway. Few of those players, though, would crack the World Cup roster.

The role of MLS, then, is similar to that of many other leagues. The MLS can stand on its own as a necessary and useful competition with major growth potential. But it will not be able to compete for talent with Europe, which controls at least 80 percent of worldwide soccer investment.

There is another measure of MLS improvement. After the league's second season, several MLS players were called into a hastily prepared U.S. camp to prepare for five games. The U.S. team lost four and tied one of those matches. MLS players either were unprepared for the international stage or were in offseason conditioning form, or both. Among the MLSers was Steve Ralston, who clearly had the ability to perform at that level but who would not receive another serious chance for several years.

Of course, while Arena said his roster is far from set, among the challenges of an Arena interview is reading between the lines.

He is an excellent motivator, and he is good at providing challenges for players and evaluating their response. During the conference call, Arena denied that anyone has been "penciled in" on the World Cup roster. Arena then virtually named Kasey Keller as the starting goalkeeper and, later, acknowledged Pope would be playing in his third World Cup.

Arena could have said Donovan and Claudio Reyna and several other Europe-based players also are certain squad members. But such statements could de-motivate not only those named to the team, but also those not named. The bubble players who are, at best, backup candidates, would believe they have less to play for.

The U.S. team performed so well against Norway and Japan partly because the players felt there was something to play for, besides the jersey. Wearing national team colors does drive players to give a strong effort, but having a credible game plan and a possible place on the World Cup roster provides focus for that energy.

And, besides, there is always a chance for someone like Mastroeni, who did not play in a 2002 qualifier yet started in South Korea. Or DaMarcus Beasley, who played a half of a meaningless qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago in 2001, then starred for the United States in the World Cup.

So, the role of the Jimmy Conrads and Pat Noonans, and even the Steve Ralstons, is to wait and see. The odds of making the team are better than most for Chris Klein, Ben Olsen and Noonan because of their versatility. But Kerry Zavagnin's chances are equally good, since he is a backup as a holding midfielder, and Mastroeni and John O'Brien have been injury-prone.

Arena has been good at finding left wingers, and this has been an important element in the U.S. game plan. For decades, the U.S. team was seldom adept at getting width in the attack because of the absence of left-sided midfielders. But Arena made that area of the field a priority and it culminated in Eddie Lewis' cross to Donovan for the second goal against Mexico in Jeonju.

Noonan is not a natural left winger, but he definitely put his stamp on the position against Japan.

"Pat Noonan, I think, is a terrific player," Arena said. "I really like him, he has a great personality. He's good for our team on the field and off. He's a real winner and a great competitor, as are all the Revolution players.

"Whatever Stevie [Nicol] is doing with them, they're really competitive guys, the kind of players you need to have on the field in international games. Pat, I think, had his best game ever for the national team against Japan. He played well on both sides of the ball. He was a lot more comfortable on the ball and had a very good game against the right-sided Japanese players."

That is high praise from Arena, and it indicates what he is seeking in many players -- two-way play, desire, personality. Noonan keeps a low profile in public, but with teammates and on the playing field he is uninhibited and confidence-inspiring. But the bottom line is, as in 2002, Arena will bring the freshest, healthiest people he can find to Germany.

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