Choices for U.S. team aren't all that difficult
While U.S. coach Bruce Arena sits on his couch for the next three weeks trying to assemble his World Cup roster, the rest of us will try our best to do his job for him. Everybody has an opinion on what the 23-man roster will look like, but trying to read Arena's mind can be an exercise in futility.
Truth be told, most of the roster is easy to project. Only a handful of spots have really been in play during the past two months and, to Arena's dismay, it appears he will have to fill the spots of players who have done little to distinguish themselves in recent matches.
What were the positions in play? The team's eighth defender, reserve defensive midfielder, wing midfielder and forward. Those four spots were up for grabs for months and not a single player stepped up to stake an unquestioned claim to the position.
Who exactly will be chosen to fill those vacant spots, along with the other 19? Here is one take on the group Arena will name on May 2, when the U.S. World Cup roster is announced on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
Goalkeepers: Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann
This has been the easiest position to project for almost a year, despite recent rumblings that MLS goalkeepers such as Tony Meola and Matt Reis would unseat one of the European-based goalkeepers.
Keller is the starter and, contrary to what some are suggesting, Howard will be the No. 2. Seeing Hahnemann as the front-runner for the No. 2 spot is understandable because he has been starting all season for Reading while Howard has been on the bench for Manchester United, but that should not take away from the simple fact that Howard is the better goalkeeper.
What would make things interesting is if one of the big three were injured in the next month. Reis and Joe Cannon are the best goalkeepers in MLS, but Arena would surely be tempted to call up longtime favorite Meola to be the third goalkeeper for a second straight World Cup. Meola has looked solid for the Red Bulls so far this season, and if he keeps that up in April, it will make it much easier for Arena to justify selecting him in the event one of the big three suffers an injury.
Defenders: Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Pope, Corey Gibbs, Steve Cherundolo, Eddie Lewis, Carlos Bocanegra, Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk
This group is strong, deep and pretty easy to project. Berhalter was written off by many after the U.S. team's 4-1 loss to Germany, but anyone who thinks he won't be on the roster isn't thinking things through. Berhalter has considerably more experience, especially in big games, than anyone who could be considered a contender for his roster spot. He is also captain of Energie Cottbus, a German second-division club on the verge of being promoted to the Bundesliga.
The one spot clearly up for grabs is at fullback. Hejduk seemed like a lock before Arena started looking long and hard at Chris Albright and Todd Dunivant. Albright has closed the gap with Hejduk, but experience likely will play a role in Arena's decision here, as well. Neither player stood out in the team's 1-1 tie against Jamaica, although Albright offered something as an aerial threat on set pieces. Will that be enough to surpass Hejduk? It could be.
It doesn't appear likely, but Arena couldn't be blamed for taking a good look at Jonathan Spector. The young defender has looked solid starting at left fullback for English Premier League club Charlton, and he also is capable of playing right back. But his lack of action for the national team and relative inexperience will probably keep him off the roster. Whomever Arena selects for the vacant fullback slot would be a Cherundolo injury away from starting in the World Cup, which makes selecting a young player more unlikely.
Midfielders: Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, John O'Brien, DaMarcus Beasley, Pablo Mastroeni, Bobby Convey, Clint Dempsey, Ben Olsen
This position should be easy to project, but the presence of oft-injured stars Reyna and O'Brien keeps these roster slots in a constant state of flux. When healthy, the top six here are a lock, with Dempsey holding an edge over the rest for the seventh spot.
Arena is eager to use the eighth midfielder spot on a defensive midfielder, especially since Eddie Lewis can always be called on as a wing midfield option and since Mastroeni has dealt with his share of injuries.
Who exactly is his best option? Zavagnin looked terrible against Germany after being unimpressive against Poland, leaving the door open for Olsen, who brings an attacking quality to the position that Zavagnin doesn't.
And what about New England midfielders Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston? They are Arena's options for cover in the event Reyna and/or O'Brien are injured.
Forwards: Brian McBride, Josh Wolff, Eddie Johnson, Taylor Twellman
This just might be the position that has Arena losing sleep. McBride is a lock to start one forward position, and the failure of the pool's other forwards to stand out is making it more and more likely Donovan will be starting alongside McBride when the U.S. plays the Czech Republic on June 12.
Wolff has struggled to find the net for the U.S. team, but he still boasts a combination of speed and passing vision that will assure him a roster spot -- and that could earn him serious minutes in the World Cup, be it at forward or in a wing midfield spot. If midfield injuries force Donovan to drop back into a playmaking role, Arena would probably start Wolff alongside McBride.
Neither Twellman nor Johnson have shown a capability of being an impact player against top competition, but there just aren't many other options for Arena to turn to. Brian Ching hasn't shown much in his recent national team performances, but his four-goal effort for Houston two weeks ago certainly resuscitated his chances. Ching could sneak up and take away a roster spot from Twellman or Johnson if either struggles in MLS action.
One player who is gaining on the competition for a roster spot at forward is Conor Casey. After recovering from a torn ACL suffered in last summer's Gold Cup, Casey is working his way back with German club FC Mainz. He played 90 minutes in the team's most recent match and appears to be fully fit.
MLS Game Previews
New England at Kansas City
The game of the week features two of the league's most dangerous offenses, and perhaps more importantly, a handful of players desperate to improve their World Cup prospects. The Revolution offense has struggled due to the recovery from injury of Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston, but the key to beating the Wizards will be a defense that has looked strong despite missing MLS Rookie of the Year Michael Parkhurst. Don't expect too many goals as both teams play it close to the vest. Revolution 1, Wizards 0
Chicago at Columbus
This match is as close as Fire fans will get to a home game for two months, so there should be a good atmosphere at Crew Stadium. Will coach Sigi Schmid earn his first win for Columbus this week? Don't bet on it, especially if Crew defender Marcos Gonzalez is unable to play. Fire 2, Crew 0
Houston at D.C. United
After Dwayne DeRosario's red card cost the Dynamos a win against Kansas City last week, Houston will be without its playmaker against a D.C. squad that is rounding into form. D.C. should dominate possession and keep Dynamo forward Brian Ching from impressing U.S. coach Bruce Arena. D.C. United 2, Dynamo 1
FC Dallas at Colorado
Kenny Cooper has made a smooth transition from England to MLS, and he could have a field day against a Rapids defense that gave up four goals to Brian Ching two weeks ago. Colorado got a break last week in playing Columbus, but its suspect defense will be exposed yet again. FC Dallas 2, Rapids 1
New York Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake
This matchup of teams in desperate need of a win could be ugly. The Red Bulls boast a far more dangerous attack and more stable defense, but that was the case last year and they were still unable to beat RSL. Salt Lake won't be as fortunate this time around, as Youri Djorkaeff and Edson Buddle lead the Red Bulls to their first win. Red Bulls 3, Real Salt Lake 0
Los Angeles Galaxy at Chivas USA
The Home Depot derby should be a fun one, as Bob Bradley looks to end the Galaxy's dominance of this series. The Galaxy's offense has struggled to generate chances but it could create problems for a slow Chivas defense. The key for Chivas will be controlling possession, which it certainly can do against Los Angeles. Look for Ante Razov to find the net against his former club as the Goats record their first derby victory. Chivas 1, Galaxy 0
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.