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Apr 12, 2006

Draw provides no answers

With the United States' dour 1-1 draw against Jamaica on Tuesday night, the seemingly endless World Cup tryout cycle came to a fitful, anticlimactic end. In a game that for some players amounted to a make-or-break match, there was no "Eureka!" moment, no jaw-dropping performance that said "Bruce Arena, leaving me off the World Cup roster will come back to haunt you."

Sure, there was a laundry list of excuses for such an uninspired performance. There were plenty of nerves, and nearly all of the U.S. players were just three days removed from their most recent league entanglements. But that isn't what will linger in the memory. Instead, some conclusions that Arena probably arrived at months ago were mildly reinforced, the first being that John O'Brien should be given the Han Solo carbonite treatment until around May 15, the better to keep his hamstrings, groin, and Achilles tendons in one piece.

Yes, the former Ajax man showed some rust, especially when he coughed up the ball to Jamaican forward Fabian Dawkins in the 84th minute, which nearly allowed the visitors to snatch a last-gasp victory. But O'Brien's 67th minute introduction coincided with an upturn in the Americans' fortunes, as the range and variety of his passes added a different dimension to the U.S. attack, and it only served to remind everyone just how much better the U.S. side is with him in the lineup.

Goodness knows that breaking down the likes of Italy and the Czech Republic this summer is going to take every ounce of attacking guile and intelligence that the Yanks currently possess. And given the fact that the U.S forwards were often starved of service on Tuesday evening, that means finding a way to have O'Brien and Claudio Reyna in the lineup at the same time. Otherwise, the final group match against Ghana will be nothing more than a glorified exhibition.

Of course, the reality is that O'Brien will most certainly not be put in the deep freeze for the next month. Instead, he'll be attempting to achieve a minimum level of match fitness with his club side, Chivas USA. But you can bet that Arena -- as well as every fan from Juneau to New Jersey -- will be watching the Goats with an added level of interest, and praying like mad that O'Brien makes it through his upcoming matches unscathed.

The other mildly interesting battle was the competition that ensued between Chris Albright and Frankie Hejduk. The race to be the backup fullback on Arena's roster has long pitted Hejduk's speed and experience against Albright's ability to get forward. That battle continued on Tuesday, with each player spending a half on one flank, before proceeding to the opposite side of the field.

Based on Tuesday's performance, I'd have to say that the winner was Jonathan Spector. True, Albright's play on set pieces nearly won the game for the U.S., especially when his glancing header in the 74th minute was superbly saved by Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. And to Albright's credit, his passing was cleaner than it normally is. But the Galaxy man's primary job is to defend, and the sight of Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Garfield Reid skinning him on the wing leaves me unconvinced that Albright is the guy to take to Germany.

Yet Hejduk's performance, at least in the early going, left Albright looking like the second coming of Paolo Maldini. Hejduk's inability to pick up Teafore Bennett on Jamaica's fourth-minute goal was bad enough, but his dreadful, two-footed tackle on Reid just eight minutes later almost surely would have been a red card in a World Cup match. So much for experience.

Their respective play in the second half improved, but it still left me wishing that Spector had been able to get a few more looks over the last few months, not that the vagaries of the international calendar have been very accommodating. Spector's early matches with the national team were relatively unimpressive, but one has to think that a guy who has been lining up at left back for Charlton in the English Premier League ought to have some value to Arena as he contemplates his final roster. Still, something tells me that Hejduk's experience will win out in the end. That's not a preference mind you, but it is a prediction.

The other position that still appeared to be up for grabs Tuesday was at right midfield, and in this instance, Clint Dempsey seemed to solidify his spot. It wasn't the Revolution midfielder's best game mind you, but his creativity and willingness to try the unexpected added another element to the American offense.

The same can't be said about Dempsey's New England teammate, Steve Ralston, who after some early involvement had little impact on the game. Ralston also seems to have caught O'Brien's penchant for getting injured at the worst possible time, as he hobbled off with a left groin strain after 55 minutes. Ralston's crossing ability is about the only thing keeping him in the mix for Germany, but with Arena already taking a chance with O'Brien's health, it's unlikely that he'll do the same with another midfield player.

Otherwise, there was little that was remarkable about this game. The U.S. huffed and puffed, but created little in the way of clear chances. This, on a night where Jamaica's Ricketts treated every single cross into his box like a live grenade. The U.S. can expect no such gifts this summer, and it looks like they will be as reliant as ever on their European-based players to progress.

Player Ratings: (on a scale of 1-10)

Tony Meola, 5 - Hung out to dry on the first goal, and had little to do thereafter.

Chris Albright, 4.5 - Got forward well, and was dangerous on set pieces, but his one-on-one defending left a lot to be desired.

Pablo Mastroeni, 5.5 - Showed some versatility by lining up in the center of defense, and he helped to lock down the middle effectively. His inclusion on the final roster is a certainty, but he seems better suited to midfield.

Eddie Pope, 6 - Another solid game, and to think that four months ago his inclusion on the final roster was in serious doubt.

Frankie Hejduk, 4 - Not a great outing for the Crew defender, and following his 12th minute tackle on Reid, was lucky to be on the field. Did better in the second half.

Pat Noonan, 4.5 - Never really got on track, despite seeing a lot of the ball in the first half. Rev's midfielder took some hellacious hits from the Jamaican defense.

Ben Olsen, 5.5 - Part of the credit for Olsen's goal should go to Ricketts' shoddy goalkeeping, but the United midfielder was in the right place at the right time. He helped his cause with this performance, but it seems likely that it won't be enough.

Landon Donovan, 5 - Showed good awareness to take the free kick quickly on Olsen's goal, and made some incisive runs, but overall he lacked sharpness in the final third. Set piece delivery was inconsistent at best.

Steve Ralston, 3.5 - Started brightly, and then faded. Hobbled off with a groin injury early in the second half, and his prospects for Germany now look slim.

Josh Wolff, 4 - Did his best to get involved in the attack, but had few opportunities to use his speed. Had one such chance late in the first half, but drifted offside.

Taylor Twellman, 4 - Barely touched the ball, and while a lack of service is partially to blame, he needs to do more to get involved in the offense.

Subs:

Eddie Johnson, 4 - Did little, and seems to be living off the reputation he earned in qualifying. Scuffed the one clear chance he had.

Brian Ching, 5 - The highest rated forward on the night, although that's not saying much. Took up more dangerous positions than any of his fellow forwards, and linked well at times with former club teammate Donovan. Still, he has first alternate written all over him.

Clint Dempsey, 6 - Added a much-needed spark to the U.S. attack, as his willingness to take people on was evident.

John O'Brien, 5.5 - Still showed some rust, but even if he's only 75 percent fit, he'll be going to Germany.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com