Conrad a picture of composure
FRISCO, Texas -- U.S. central defender Jimmy Conrad's job Sunday was to keep dangerous Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz under control. His job in the bigger picture is to force Bruce Arena into some very tough choices.
So it was mission accomplished on all fronts on a miserably cold afternoon in the Dallas suburbs.
A well-bundled crowd of 14,453 took on subfreezing temperatures (31 at kickoff) and steady drizzle to see the United States' debut appearance at Pizza Hut Park, a 4-0 win over outclassed Guatemala.
Arena's bunch dealt with the elements better than a Guatemalan team that seems to have fallen into disarray; the Central Americans, under an interim manager, neglected to bring cold-weather gear and stayed on the field only about 10 minutes during the pregame warmup period. (Guatemala borrowed a bunch of old training gear from FC Dallas. Actually it was old "Dallas Burn" stuff sitting nearby in a warehouse. And the Central Americans borrowed match, long-sleeve undershirts from U.S. Soccer.)
Conrad was among a handful of players who aided their causes Sunday in the desperate chase for World Cup roster spots. He and Eddie Pope -- whose place on the final 23-man list certainly seems secure -- were a picture of calm steadiness. After the match, Arena said the team is deep and getting deeper at central defender. He acknowledged tough choices ahead
Ben Olsen played along side Kerry Zavagnin and Chris Klein in a three-man midfield. Olsen not only registered the opener, but also tackled hard and was easily the busiest man on a slightly slick pitch, but one that held up well under the conditions.
They all combined to hold back Ruiz and Pando Ramirez -- the only goal scorer in the 2005 MLS Cup final on this same Frisco field -- until a U.S. attack finally gained that extra bit of precision near goal and broke open the contest.
Olsen, another player on the fringe, took a quick peak in the 38th minute and noticed Guatemalan goalkeeper Ricardo Perez straying from his line. So he settled a long pass from Klein and calmly volleyed it from 25 yards over the stranded goalkeeper.
Ching exploited some sloppy defending just before intermission, finishing with authority from 12 yards.
Ching also got his feed from Klein, whom Arena singled out as having his best game of 2006. Klein's thundering shot in 71st minute finished off Sunday's scoring.
Johnson announced his return to roster contention by scoring two minutes after coming in at halftime for Josh Wolff. Johnson got control of Chris Rolfe's clever overhead chip, then accelerated by a defender to score from close range -- his first goal in six appearances at Pizza Hut Park, including contests with FC Dallas.
"The score was already 2-0 when I came in, and Bruce told me just to have fun," Johnson said. "Whenever I try to have fun I tend to do well."
That was Johnson's ninth international goal in just 12 appearances as he climbed into a tie for 15th on the all-time U.S. scoring list.
Arena chose not to start Johnson, playing it conservatively with the somewhat brittle forward, who has yet to make a start in 2006. Johnson says the toe ailments that took apart the 2005 season are under control, but said he's still a little bothered by a right calf bruise.
Johnson got hit hard on the same calf in the 62nd minute Sunday, with Julio Giron taking a yellow card for the bad challenge. Wolff didn't do much to assist his case -- especially with Arena letting on Sunday that he planned to take only four forwards this summer, plus 'tweener players like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. Wolff was ever-busy but ultimately unproductive, which has tended to be the case internationally.
"Josh knows that's an area he's got to get better in," Arena said. "He was very active in the first half and part of a lot of good plays. However, he was also part of a lot of others where he could have made a better pass or done something better."
The match concluded the U.S. team's six-week training camp -- early World Cup preparation formulated mostly to get the domestically based players a head start on their fitness and sharpness. Arena's bunch had three wins and a draw in that time.
Most of this group will disperse back to their MLS clubs. Arena is more likely to call upon European-based players for a pair of March matches in Germany.
GK Brad Guzan, 6 - Nothing to do but routine ball handling. Was sure in his limited action.
RB Frankie Hejduk, 7 - Combined well with Chris Klein. Beaten once early by Pando Ramirez, but otherwise steady and active. Good crossing, and had a nice 10th-minute shot on goal. Looks midsummer fit.
CB Jimmy Conrad, 8 - Ever composed, rarely had a foot out of place, even when doing combat with feisty Carlos Ruiz. Rescued a beaten Pearce with an outstanding 32nd-minute tackle. Got forward occasionally, too.
CB Eddie Pope (captain), 7 - Scrappy when he needed to be against Ruiz. One or two slightly unsteady moments, but otherwise looking like the Pope of the past. Showed some zippy speed to squash a dangerous situation in the 52nd minute.
LB Heath Pearce, 4 - Some questionable positioning. Beaten over the top on a couple of occasions, once badly by Mario Rodriguez. Some unsure one-on-one defending.
MF Chris Klein, 7 - His crossing could have been better, but he was quite influential on the outcome with a goal and two assists. Industrious, but might need to be a little more tidy with the ball to win a roster spot for Germany.
MF Kerry Zavagnin, 6 - A steady if slightly quiet presence in midfield, with more organizing than tackling. Smooth, simple passing. But his game lacks the bite of a ball-winning type such as Pablo Mastroeni.
MF Ben Olsen, 7 - He might be the odd man out for Germany 2006, but it won't be due to Sunday's workmanlike performance. Added some flair and nice technical work to his trademark energy and grit. Nicely taken goal. Played slightly to the left, and covered enough ground that Arena was able to go without a true left-sided midfielder.
FW Josh Wolff, 5 - Continues to put himself in the right places without getting results. Needed more authority around goal on two early efforts (neither of which forced a save). Made two poor choices near goal in the first 20 minutes, too.
FW Brian Ching, 5 - Took his goal well, but a quiet afternoon otherwise. Went over the bar with a promising 74th-minute header from six yards. Probably not enough for a guy who needed to make an impression.
FW Chris Rolfe, 5 - Looked hurried and nervous early, then settled down to have a decent afternoon playing wide on the right. Missed two good chances to score, but did provide Eddie Johnson with a nice assist.
Bobby Boswell, 5 - Played centrally, with Conrad moving out to the right. Not much time to make an impression.
Eddie Johnson, 6 - Got back in the scoring column, showing that nice burst of speed that makes him dangerous. Helps his team by playing simple balls in and around midfield, then hurrying into the penalty area to get on the business end of the crosses.
Kyle Martino, 5 - Not much time, but tried to be busy as an 80th-minute sub.
Zach Wells, 5 - Scooped up one potentially dangerous ball. Little else to do after coming on in the 80th.
Santino Quaranta, 4 - Dribbled himself into trouble too often - possibly trying too hard to make an impression.
Brian Carroll, 6 - Showed some nice awareness in 27 minutes in place of centrally-stationed Zavagnin. Did put his team in trouble once with a sloppy header.
Steve Davis covers soccer for The Dallas Morning News and ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com