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Mar 25, 2006

No real surprises

HAMBURG, Germany -- A day after his team's embarrassing 4-1 loss to Germany, Bruce Arena was all smiles. Entertaining a gathering of German and American media Arena exchanged jokes and displayed a jovial mood that left at least a few German media admiring him for being able to put Wednesday night's loss behind him. What they might not have known is that the worst defeat in Arena's career as U.S. coach was neither a surprise or really all that destructive to the plans he is laying out ahead of the World Cup. Arena freely admitted that he made a mistake scheduling a match in Germany against the World Cup hosts so close to the World Cup and without his best players. He also pointed out that though still painful, the defeat provided Arena with some quality information about his player pool.

Did he, or we, really learn anything that wouldn't have already surmised during the past few months? Not really.

If you didn't already know that A) Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman were going to struggle badly against top European competition, B) Kerry Zavagnin and Chris Klein are so far below the standard needed in midfield for the World Cup that their feet are burning, and C) the depth of the U.S. player pool is perilously thin, then Wednesday night served as a sorely needed wake-up call.

What was truly the most comforting revelation of the Germany match? That Bobby Convey officially has matured into a player who deserves a consistent place not only on Arena's roster, but also in the coach's considerations for a starting role. Convey was the only American player on the field who provided any sort of attacking threat to a German defense that could hardly be called impenetrable. His willingness to take on defenders and the technical acumen he displayed in some of his decision making, at least offensively, made you wonder just how well he could do if surrounded by a complement of competent attacking partners.

Arena wasn't about to heap praise on anybody after Wednesday's loss, but he seemed especially unwilling to give Convey credit for being one of the few players with a pulse against Germany. The coach chose instead to point out Convey's defensive lapses, though some of those easily could have been chalked up to Convey's heavy burden of trying to create scoring chances playing alongside a cast of shadows. You probably can't blame Arena for not wanting to pump up Convey's fortunes publicly, not with DaMarcus Beasley going through a professional purgatory at PSV Eindhoven.

Some already were looking to hand Convey the starting left midfield spot after his performance against Poland, and after Beasley's thoroughly uninspired performance in that same match. While it is true that Beasley's form has dipped, understandable since he lost his starting job at PSV, the speedy winger is still one of the best attacking players Arena has and even the thought that Beasley won't play a key role in June is ridiculous.

Why? Because Beasley is still too skilled, too dangerous and too established a two-way player to ever consider not having on the field when the U.S. team returns here in three months. Because even if Convey does play his way into the starting left midfield role Beasley is still a better option on the right flank than any player currently in the running for that spot. And perhaps most importantly, because Arena is confident that, given three weeks to work on it before the World Cup, he can help restore Beasley's confidence.

Convey's confidence doesn't need the same repair. Starting for the top team in the English First Division has helped him fulfill the promise Convey has had since his earliest days as a top U.S. youth player. Playing in front of a hostile crowd against Germany and excelling removed any doubt about whether he could handle a starting role in the World Cup.

Only one other player, Pablo Mastroeni, was able to stake a claim to a starting role after Wednesday. His ability to break up plays, and even offer a few testing runs forward, showed that Mastroeni still has the ability to play against elite competition even after having missed so much time due to injury. If Mastroeni is healthy in June, Arena will have a hard time keeping him out of the starting lineup, especially considering the quality of the midfields in the U.S. World Cup group.

Cory Gibbs' performance drew mixed reviews when the reality was he did well despite playing out of position. Arena's original plan was to have Gibbs play left back in a three-man defense, but Germany's decision to play a 4-3-3 scuttled that strategy. That left Gibbs to play left back in a 4-4-2, which he did rather effectively. You could argue that Gibbs secured his place on the World Cup roster but he always was a lock to go as long as he was healthy and fit. His versatility is vital to Arena's roster construction and Gibbs could very well be in the starting lineup against the Czech Republic on June 12 if he continues his progress.

For all the terrible performances on Wednesday night, there weren't quite as many American players who lost a place on the World Cup roster that they already had secured. Kerry Zavagnin and Chris Klein had long since shown their inability to be effective on this level and Wednesday's poor showing, especially in Klein's case, only served to reinforce what already should have been known. Zavagnin was able to deliver a sharp pass or two, and also get in the way of Michael Ballack on a few occasions, but he is just not consistent enough to ever consider putting on the field against an Italy or Czech Republic.

Three players who were ineffective on Wednesday, but who should still be considered safe for a return to Germany in June, were Johnson, Twellman and defender Gregg Berhalter. Johnson tried hard to have an impact on the game, and his header in the second half that was saved brilliantly by Oliver Kahn was the U.S. team's best scoring chance, but he is quickly learning that he isn't going to be able to impose his will on top European defenses with just his speed and size. At times against Germany you got the impression that Johnson believed he could outrun, outjump and out-physical the large German defenders, only to be rudely reminded on almost every occasion that these were not CONCACAF defenders he was up against. The same description also could apply to Twellman, who was rendered useless in his 30 minutes of action against Germany's towering defenders.

Johnson's performance against Germany aside, Arena's comments after the match, where he repeatedly pointed out that Johnson still is recovering from missing seven months of action, suggests that Arena is willing to wait as long as it takes to see if Johnson can reach a high enough level to warrant starting alongside Brian McBride in the World Cup.

When four goals are scored against you the logical targets for the most criticism are the defense and Jimmy Conrad and Berhalter received a good amount of blame for the blowout. While they did make mistakes that helped lead to at least two of the four goals, the center back tandem was just as much a victim of playing behind a midfield that faded badly and seemed to stop defending with a third of the match still left to play. Conrad might have been the one player to have his World Cup bubble burst as he appeared to have trouble not only reading the game, but also dealing with the skill and pace of Germany's quicker attackers. That said, Arena appears to be leaning toward bringing as many as nine defenders, which still gives Conrad hope.

Berhalter also struggled, but he still is experienced enough on the World Cup stage to warrant being on the roster. Berhalter read the game well and coped with the pace of German forwards in the first half, but succumbed to the unrelenting pressure Germany was able to put on once the U.S. midfield effectively checked out.

Where does the U.S. World Cup roster stand now? There are 20 players who appear to have current holds on places, leaving two open spots that likely will go to two defenders and a midfielder (Frankie Hejduk, Jonathan Spector and John O'Brien fill those slots in the projected roster below).

Projected U.S. World Cup Roster (As of March 25th)

GK: Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann

D: Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Pope, Carlos Bocanegra, Cory Gibbs, Steve Cherundolo, Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk, Jonathan Spector

M: Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Pablo Mastroeni, Clint Dempsey, John O'Brien

F: Brian McBride, Eddie Johnson, Josh Wolff, Taylor Twellman.

Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.