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Apr 11, 2006

Turning heads

Bruce Arena is not the sort of coach who leaves a lot to the last minute, even if he doesn't care to release his lineups publicly. In the U.S. national team's midweek encounter against Jamaica, he is looking to confirm World Cup roster choices he has basically already made. Yet the possibility remains, however slight, of some players making such an impact that their case to be included on the lineup going to Germany in June suddenly becomes much stronger.

There's actually a lot at stake in the game, and not just for the American players. The squad that gave the U.S. the most unexpected difficulty this year, was a young and unheralded Canadian team that used speed and grit to stymie the midfield and create quality chances on the counterattack.

Jamaica has gathered a similarly youthful squad.

"We're looking forward to the 2010 World Cup, seeing as we're not in this one," explained Reggae Boyz veteran Tyrone Marshall. "It's important to have the young guys come up and get some international experience, especially against a team like the U.S."

Marshall was called up for the squad, but his club, Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, declined to release him, though they allowed Landon Donovan and Chris Albright to make the trip.

"It's not a FIFA sanctioned date; they weren't obligated to send me in," Marshall reasoned. "It wasn't as important for me to go in as it was for the U.S. players to go in."

However, a largely unknown and hungry lineup may pose more danger for the Americans. Marshall pointed out that the players have pride at stake.

"They have to be professional, especially on a big stage like this, in front of a big TV audience. Later on down the road, that plays a big part in [Jamaica] getting more international games and more friendlies. It's important that we have a good showing, especially the younger guys stepping up and bringing their talent."

The eager hopefuls on the Jamaican roster will be looking to make an impact on not only the world at large and coach Wendell Downswell in particular, but also on any MLS coaches who might be watching.

"Some of the guys are going to impress some of the coaches here in the U.S., who might give them the opportunity to come in to a couple of clubs and see if they can do something for them," said Marshall.

He expected a few to make their presence known.

"Khari Stephenson -- he played in MLS, but he's playing in Sweden now. He's on the upswing. He's a big talent that you have to look out for. Jermaine Hue is a very crafty midfielder. He's with Kansas City. Obviously, there are the guys in the back, Claude Davis and Damion Stewart. Upfront, we have this young kid, Teafore Bennett. He played well in Gold Cup and scored the tying goal against South Africa."

Yet Marshall also wished his Galaxy teammates well in the match, especially Albright, who had little chance to impress Arena earlier in the year because of a knee injury.

"I hope he does his best," said Marshall. "I thought he played well on Saturday. He stepped up and scored a big goal for us [versus the Chicago Fire]. I think he has a good opportunity."

Albright is one of a number of recuperating U.S. players that Arena must sort through as possibilities for his World Cup roster. There's also Chivas USA's John O'Brien (groin injury), Revolution teammates Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston (hamstring problems), and Real Salt Lake's Eddie Pope (bad back). If they can prove their fitness and show they have not lost much skill and touch in their absence from the field, Arena's choices get a little tougher.

The microscope of being judged heavily on one game isn't easy, but neither is the pressure of the World Cup.

Even among the players in perfect health, few can be absolutely sure of a World Cup spot, so many will be jostling to move up in the coach's esteem.

Arena has no doubt kept an eye on the opening of the MLS season and is probably well aware that of his options at forward, Brian Ching has scored five goals in two games and Eddie Johnson one. Taylor Twellman, Josh Wolff and Donovan have none.

Midfielders Ben Olsen and Kerry Zavagnin didn't make much of a stir in their most recent international match against Germany, but have a chance to turn that around.

"It's the last opportunity for our domestic players to show me something," said Arena of the fixture. He is expected to announce a preliminary World Cup player roster that includes twelve alternates this Wednesday.

The game isn't all about the future, though. It's also going to be a match that honors the team's historic past, specifically in the plans to give goalkeeper Tony Meola his 100th cap. He was only nineteen when he earned his first against Ecuador. Now 37, he has battled back from injury at various points in his career to again be a starter with New York, the team with which he began his MLS career.

Jamaica has never beaten the U.S. in the sixteen meetings between the two countries, but it has often played the Americans close. As the visiting team, they will probably follow a modified version of Canada's game plan and depend heavily on counter opportunities to their quick forwards. If the U.S. gets stuck in the midfield and the Jamaican defense is up to the task, the result could be another surprising tie.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com