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May 22, 2006

Arena looking to finalize lineup

Training camp is over for the U.S. national team and Bruce Arena's squad is as healthy as he could have ever dreamed of it being. In fact, there are few things the coach can complain about as his squad prepares for its three-match farewell tour, which begins Tuesday night (ESPN2, 7 ET) against Morocco in Nashville, Tenn.

Arena still has his share of decisions to make as the days wind down to the U.S. team's World Cup opener on June 12 against the Czech Republic, but he could not have asked for a better two weeks of training. John O'Brien is working his way back into form, Claudio Reyna looks refreshed and ready to follow up his All-Star World Cup in 2002 with another solid tournament and MLS forwards Eddie Johnson and Brian Ching are starting to show signs of being viable options alongside Brian McBride.

Sure, it all looks great in training down in Cary, N.C., but we will have a much better idea of where Arena's squad stands after Tuesday night's match against a Morocco team that should offer the toughest test of the three opponents the U.S. team will face before leaving for Germany. The North Africans are ranked 36th in the world and boast enough talent to give the U.S. team, and particularly its attack, a good test.

How good is Morocco? Consider that the Atlas Lions were the only team to go through African World Cup qualifying undefeated (5-0-5) and they are just two years removed from appearing in an African Nations Cup final.

The run of three games in six days should allow all 23 players on the U.S. World Cup roster to state their case for either a place in the starting lineup or in the substitutes' rotation and the relative weakness of the competition means there won't be any excuses for not dominating. Let's face it: If the U.S. team can't plow through the likes of Latvia and Venezuela, it could be in for a France '98-like performance this June in Germany.

That being said, the results aren't the top priority for Arena this week. What the U.S. coach needs to know is which players are ready and what positions those players are best suited to play. A week from now we will have a much clearer picture about just how prepared the U.S. team is for the brutal Group E schedule. These are five questions Arena will hopefully have an answer to by May 29.

Is John O'Brien ready?

There is little question that, when healthy and fit, O'Brien has to be on the field. The oft-injured playmaker made it through training camp unscathed and will surely be put through the ringer this week in order to see how ready he is for the grind of World Cup soccer.

Morocco boasts the most talented of the three midfields the U.S. team will face and it should offer O'Brien the best chance to show what he can deliver. Something else to consider is whether Arena is ready to try O'Brien out at positions other than central midfield, be it on either midfield flank or at left back. The strength of the midfields in Group E could lead Arena to consider placing O'Brien somewhere other than central midfield to help maximize the passing ability in the U.S. lineup.

Who plays on the right?

The buzz in some circles is that Clint Dempsey is ready for prime time after an impressive training camp and some stellar performances for the national team this year. Before we hand him the starting right midfield spot, consider that he has yet to prove himself against top-flight competition (which he might have been able to do against Germany in March if he hadn't gotten suspended for punching New England teammate Joey Franchino).

Morocco, with its stingy defense, should provide Dempsey with the perfect opponent to show that he deserves the starting spot, but Dempsey will have his share of competition for the position. O'Brien, Josh Wolff, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley could all be used on the right wing depending on the formation and opponent. What that quartet of players boasts in abundance is experience in big games against tough competition, which might ultimately be what keeps Dempsey in a super-sub role in Germany.

While some might not consider Donovan an option on the right flank, Arena has to be considering all his options for the team's first World Cup match, against the Czech's. Pavel Nedved is arguably the Czech Republic's most dangerous player and his presence on the left flank will make it imperative that the U.S. team has a competent two-way player. Donovan could be called on to try and neutralize Nedved, although Beasley might be better suited for the task. This week should offer some insight into the players Arena is seriously considering for that role.

Who will be McBride's strike partner?

The fact that none of the forwards in the U.S. pool stepped up to take hold of the starting slot next to McBride was one of the biggest concerns before training camp began. Johnson and Ching showed enough during the 10 days in Cary to lead us to believe they just might be ready to take the role.

Johnson's recovery from an injury-plagued 2005 was slow and frustrating, and his form early in the season left many wondering if he even deserved a World Cup roster spot. Arena saw the potential and was confident that getting Johnson into training camp would give him the environment to regain the form that made him a national team star from late 2004 to early 2005. Johnson has rewarded Arena by looking every bit as dangerous as he did before a rash of foot injuries sidelined him last year.

There may be no other forward on the roster in better form right now than Ching, who has shown confidence and skill that go well beyond his reputation as just another big forward. When he beat out Taylor Twellman for the fourth forward spot, many assumed he would just be McBride's understudy, but Ching is playing so well that Arena will have to at least consider starting his two most physically imposing forwards alongside each other.

MLS matches and training camp scrimmages are one thing, national team matches are altogether different. Morocco boasts a strong defense that will give Ching and Johnson a chance to show they can score against a good defense, so don't be surprised to see them start on Tuesday.

All the talk about Ching and Johnson has dropped Wolff into the background, but the fact remains that he is second only to McBride in experience playing and delivering in big games. Arena has stated repeatedly that the national team's best attacking players love playing with Wolff, whose vision and work rate are the reasons he has been involved in so many key plays throughout his national team career. His goal productivity has been far from ideal with the national team in recent months, but Wolff brings enough intangibles to warrant starting somewhere, be it forward or on the right flank.

Will Eddie Lewis be the left back?

You can't blame Arena for loving the idea of having Lewis storming down the left flank on overlapping runs from the left back position, but it remains unclear whether the U.S. defense can afford that luxury.

It appears more and more likely that the U.S. team will field a 3-5-2 formation come June 12 against the Czechs and such a formation would not include Lewis in the back, especially considering the Czechs boast Karel Poborsky on the right flank. However, if Arena goes with a 4-4-2 formation, he is supremely confident Lewis can hold his own. This week should allow us to see how well Lewis can adjust to switching from left midfield to left back.

What are Arena's other options? Cory Gibbs might be the best one regardless of formation. He is perfectly suited to play at left back in a three-man defense, but Gibbs also proved he was capable of playing left back in a 4-4-2 against Germany in March. Gibbs' size, strength and speed could force Arena to push Lewis back into the midfield, which would mean using Beasley on the right wing in what could be the U.S. team's best defensive lineup. We will get to see all the different permutations this week.

Who will man the central defense?

The real question is who will play next to Oguchi Onyewu in central defense. The gigantic center back has put a stranglehold on a starting role, either as the center back in a three-man defense, or as one of the two center backs in a four-man defense. Veteran Eddie Pope will start alongside Onyewu if he stays healthy, which is vital because his experience helps make up for Onyewu's lack of experience.

Carlos Bocanegra would have been a much stronger candidate to start before a thigh injury sidelined him, leading to the loss of his starting role with Fulham. He is back and healthy and could force his way into the lineup if Pope suffers a setback.

These are just some of the many questions Arena still has to answer before the U.S. World Cup team departs for Germany. All Arena can hope for this week is getting some answers and avoiding any new questions.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.