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World Cup squads: Who is in?

World Cup

U.S. likely to receive strong local support

Playing against European national teams in Europe is the toughest test for outsiders. Among non-European nations, only Argentina and Brazil have been able to break through the barrier to succeed in major tournaments on the continent.

And the U.S. is about to take its first steps into this hornet's nest when it meets Poland in Kaiserslautern on Wednesday and Germany in Dortmund March 22. These matches will help acclimate the U.S. players to Germany, and also place the team in the European spotlight.

It is one thing to play against Canada, Norway, Japan and Guatemala in the U.S.; it's quite another going against traditional European powers in their backyard at the height of league seasons.

But, like Argentina and Brazil, most of the key players for the U.S. are performing in Europe and therefore won't be on completely foreign turf. Coach Bruce Arena named 11 Europe-based players to the team and all but goalkeeper Tim Howard and Jonathan Spector have a good chance of being in the starting lineup against the Poles.

The match will be played at Fritz-Walter Stadion, the venue for the U.S.- Italy game on June 17. This could be as close to a home-field feeling for the U.S. as there is outside the country, since Kaiserslautern is home to Ramstein Air Base, the largest U.S. military installation outside of the country. Kaiserslautern, (K-Town to the service members), has a population of 100,000. Ramstein is host to 50,000 Americans, plus the U.S. team, which is training there.

Kaiserslautern is teeming with soccer history. Five members of Germany's 1954 World Cup-winning "Miracle of Berne" team were from Kaiserslautern, including captain Fritz Walter and his brother, Ottmar. Germans regard Kaiserslautern as "Soccer Town." Other cities have converted houses of Bach, Beethoven, Durer, Goethe, Luther and Schiller into museums; Kaiserslautern has transformed Fritz Walter's house into a museum.

So, meeting Poland and Italy in Kaiserslautern would not be like facing the Germans there. Friendly, red-white-and-blue painted faces will be visible, possibly a prospective Thomas Dooley among them.

If the U.S. does draw support for this game, then it would be an ironic reversal of the teams' last meeting, when Soldier Field was turned into a mini Warsaw for a July 11, 2004, match. Then, the U.S. rallied for a 1-1 tie, with Carlos Bocanegra scoring the tying goal in the final seconds.

Poland coach Pawel Janas is still experimenting with his team. Janas has a 30-player roster and will choose the squad for the U.S. game after playing a match against FC Kaiserslautern Tuesday.

Arena's experiment has virtually concluded. Arena might have tried Pat Noonan in a substitute role on the left wing, but Noonan is out with a right hamstring strain sustained in New England's CONCACAF Champions Cup game against LD Alajuelense. Noonan will not return before the April 1 MLS season-opener. But, by now, Arena knows what to expect from every prospective U.S. player.

The lineup Arena uses against Poland will be close to the one which the U.S. will present against the Czech Republic June 12 in Gelsenkirchen, about 150 miles north of Kaiserslautern.

Defending in front of Kasey Keller will be Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, either Bocanegra or Gregg Berhalter, and Eddie Lewis. Pablo Mastroeni supports Landon Donovan in midfield, with DaMarcus Beasley and either Bobby Convey or Clint Dempsey outside. Brian McBride and Josh Wolff are complementary forwards. If Eddie Johnson is healthy, he could displace Wolff. Taylor Twellman remains McBride's backup, despite having scored five times in his last four U.S. games.

Claudio Reyna could return for the March 22 Germany match and John O'Brien has an outside chance of being back for the World Cup. Eddie Pope will likely be a starter in central defense against Germany, and Cory Gibbs, now with ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands, will have a chance as a reserve. Few others have a chance of cracking the starting lineup.

But being healthy and in prime physical condition is Arena's prime consideration for selecting the team.

Two years ago, Chris Klein sustained a left anterior cruciate ligament tear the day before a call-up for a World Cup qualifier. It was the second time Klein would undergo surgery for the injury, and his career seemed in jeopardy.

Until recently, Klein was out of national team consideration, but now appears fully recovered. Earlier this month, Klein was slotted into the right back role and did not seem comfortable, then had a breakout match from midfield in a 4-0 win over Guatemala. Even so, Klein remained behind Noonan, a more technical and versatile performer, on the U.S. depth chart. Then, Noonan went down while making a cross late in the Revolution match in Bermuda Feb. 22. So, Klein is in Kaiserslautern.

When the U.S. arrives in Hamburg in June, the team will be composed not of the few and the proud, but of the healthiest and heartiest.

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