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May 25, 2006

Youth may be best served

The U.S. showed in its loss to Morocco on Tuesday that it can struggle against a patient, technical team intent on counterattacking -- especially if the U.S. players are not performing at their familiar 100-mph pace.

But Venezuela could present a completely different look to the U.S. in Friday's game in Cleveland.

Venezuela coach Richard Paez is attempting to redefine the national team's image and establish an attacking game. Juan Arango, who is listed as a midfielder with Mallorca in Spain, will be deployed as a striker in an attempt "to meet the challenge of getting results, especially in a team like Venezuela, where it is not easy to find goal scorers," Paez told El Universal.

Arango led Mallorca in scoring with 11 goals this season, a year after having survived a brutal elbow to the head that knocked him unconscious in a match against Sevilla and nearly ended his career. But Arango is not a classic front-runner (he's more comfortable in midfield) and so could be placed in an unfamiliar position against the U.S.

Paez has assembled a young group, as did Morocco coach Mohammed Fakher, in preparation for playing host to the 2007 Copa America. The Venezuelan government is backing the tournament in a big way (yes, Hugo Chavez is a soccer fan), and the push is on to present a competitive team. Venezuela has never made an impact in international soccer, but the national team has improved greatly in recent years and could spring some surprises as the host country.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelans are not under pressure to produce results, yet. And the U.S., suddenly, is.

The loss to Morocco does not present any reason for the U.S. to panic. Claudio Reyna sustained only a hamstring strain and should recover soon. But U.S. coach Bruce Arena is not going to be comfortable with two successive defeats, even if these games are meaningless. That is one of Arena's assets -- his competitive nature simply will not allow him to settle easily for defeats, no matter what the circumstances.

Certainly, it was understandable if the U.S. players paced themselves against Morocco, especially after seeing Reyna go down. They are only a couple of weeks away from fulfilling their World Cup dream, and it would be tragic to have that taken away because of a clash in a friendly played in Nashville, Tenn.

But the problem with the U.S. team is that its players simply cannot perform successfully unless they are putting in at least 100 percent effort. Some teams can coast, knock the ball around for a while, turn on the effort long enough to score a goal or two, then let up on the gas. Not the U.S. -- it's either go all out for 90 minutes or experience what happened against Morocco.

Morocco, although a young team, displayed patience and a willingness to slow things down, plus the physical fitness and sophistication to be able to counterattack at the right time. Of course, as the visiting team, the Moroccans were not obligated to go forward and could set up with a lone striker.

Venezuela, though, will not retreat into a defensive shell, according to Paez. And La Vinotinto will present a robust defensive style, judging by its performance against Mexico in a 1-0 loss at the Rose Bowl on May 5. In that match, Mexico scored on a 58th-minute penalty kick by Omar Bravo and could well have had at least one other penalty before that one.

So, if Venezuela comes out attacking, it should be a matchup more suited to the taste of the U.S. players.

But this game does raise questions about the choice of opponents on this road to Germany tour. Neither Morocco nor Venezuela plays a style similar to the Group E opponents the U.S. will face next month. A West African foe would have been good preparation for Ghana, and likely would not have played the laid-back, counterattacking game Morroco presented. And Venezuela hardly resembles the other group opponents, the Czech Republic and Italy.

Arena has his plans set, and they are based on John O'Brien and Reyna setting the tone in midfield. But O'Brien does not appear, nor should he be expected to be, ready to play 90 minutes. And Reyna still seems fragile; the tackle that knocked him out of the Morocco game surely would not have bothered Bobby Convey, Clint Dempsey or Pablo Mastroeni nearly as much as it did Reyna.

The composure and tactical awareness of O'Brien and Reyna are certainly fundamental to the U.S. strategy. But Arena might have to take a risk and go with the youngsters; their enthusiasm and sheer youthfulness could pay off. O'Brien and/or Reyna might be better suited to entering as a second-half substitute, to either settle things down or try to rally the troops. And, no matter how far the U.S. goes in Germany, by playing the younger players, the Americans surely will get a head start on South Africa 2010.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPNsoccernet.