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 Posted by ESPN Staff
May 23, 2006

U.S. starts World Cup rehearsals against Morocco

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Now that U.S. players have had nearly two weeks to get reacquainted, it's time for the games to begin.

The American World Cup team meets Morocco on Tuesday night in the first of three exhibition games in a six-day span that will give players a chance to show coach Bruce Arena they belong in the lineup for the tournament opener against the Czech Republic on June 12.

"You've done the job of getting on the roster," midfielder Clint Dempsey said, "but now you've got to try to get in games."

The United States is ranked fifth in the world by FIFA -- not even the American team takes the ranking too seriously. Morocco, ranked 36th, just missed out on qualifying for the tournament, finishing one point behind Tunisia in its qualifying group.

Most teams are preparing for the World Cup in Europe, so it was difficult to entice top nations to come to the United States for exhibition games. None of the three teams the Americans are playing made the 32-nation field.

The Atlas Lions are the highest-ranked of the three opponents. Next up is 71st-ranked Venezuela on Friday in Cleveland, followed by No. 70 Latvia two nights later in East Hartford, Conn.

For John O'Brien, trying to regain fitness following a lengthy series of injuries, the three games are key. Arena has said if the midfielder isn't healthy, he could be replaced on the 23-man roster.

"My goal last week was to kind of show I could do it in practice. I did that," said O'Brien, who scored the first goal against Portugal in the Americans' 2002 World Cup opener. "So now it's the next step: Starting to get into games and show that I belong."

The advance sale was over 20,000 for the game in The Coliseum, which has a capacity of about 68,000.

After Monday's practice, Arena talked about how difficult the task was just to reach the tournament, comparing it with other sports that are played in the United States.

"You start in a process that began four years ago with 204, 205 countries, and now you're down to 32," he said. "That's the real animal. And maybe in this country no one understands this because we have our nice little -- not little -- nice professional leagues where we call whoever turns out the winner the world champion, which is the most bizarre thing I've ever heard, and never win a world championship in any of these sports anymore. This is it. This is the real world champion in sport."

Arena said it's too early to start thinking about a possible lineup against the Czechs, who are ranked second.

"We might all get hit by a bus after the game tomorrow," he said. "Don't worry about the opening game yet. It's too early. There's a lot of stuff that happens between now and then."

Coming off a quarterfinal finish in 2002, the U.S. team faces higher expectations, even though it is in a difficult first-round group that also includes No. 13 Italy and No. 48 Ghana.

Most of the U.S. players have been together since May 10, when the team gathered in Cary, N.C., to start workouts. Defender Carlos Bocanegra said that in addition to fitness, players worked on bonding.

"We've been hanging out a lot together, going to eat meals, just kind of getting to know each other a bit better and becoming a team," he said.

Left back Eddie Lewis, who attended the first few days of workouts, was due back Monday night from Cardiff, Wales, after playing for Leeds United in its 3-0 loss to Watford on Sunday in the playoff for a berth in England's Premier League next season.

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