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May 26, 2006

Defend and counter

Despite a stunning 2002 quarterfinal run, this year's U.S. squad is taking nothing for granted. The plan is simple: Surround the ball, harass opposing midfielders into creating turnovers and choose just the right moments to get out on the break. If the Yanks can capitalize on counterattacks, the second round awaits.

TOUGH NET

Few nations boast the quality and depth the Yanks enjoy in goal. But unlike four years ago, there's no keeper controversy this time. Barring injury, Kasey Keller, who backed up Brad Friedel in 2002, will be the only man between the U.S. sticks.

At 36, Keller is heading to his fourth World Cup, but having seen action only in the three-and-out 1998 campaign, he's still looking for his first W. He remains a cat-quick shot-stopper and was a brick wall throughout qualifying. Keller's sole weakness is the kicking game; his accuracy on goal kicks and punts is lacking. If the U.S. is going to gain the territorial advantage it needs to set up its defensive pressure, Keller has to find the head of forward Brian McBride with his long balls.

Keller's poise, leadership and confidence through a 17-year career in England, Spain and Germany have made him the face of American soccer for European fans. He also has remained staunchly loyal to the U.S. squad, earning 91 caps since 1990. "No one loves playing for the national team more than Kasey," says coach Bruce Arena. "Nothing could keep him out of this World Cup."

Goalkeepers

Kasey Keller - Gaudy 45 clean sheets in 91 national team games.

Marcus Hahnemann - Top keeper in English second tier is EPL-bound.

Tim Howard - Rust factor? Played just six games for Man U this season.

BACK BREAKERS

No one's quite sure how Arena will configure his back line, save that big man Oguchi Onyewu will be anchored in the center. The most intriguing name on the depth chart is Eddie Lewis, a career midfielder who shined at left back in home qualifying wins over Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago. But those two teams are weak on the right. Can Lewis hold down the slot against the Czechs or Italians? "I'm feeling more comfortable out there," says Lewis, a left midfielder for Leeds United. "With the strength of our center backs, the position is not all that different from my normal spot."

The 32-year-old Lewis could be key on the counter. And if the Yanks face a must-win against Ghana in their final group match, Lewis will be in full offensive mode. Arena wants to get him ahead on the break to set up attackers with his precision crosses.

His pinpoint pass to find a streaking Landon Donovan sealed the squad's round of 16 upset over Mexico four years ago. It's a play Arena points to as a textbook example of a quality counter. "That goal was a reward for all our hard work," the coach says. "It showed our fitness, our pace and our precision."

Defenders

Chris Albright - Converted forward replaces injured vet Frankie Hejduk.

Carlos Bocanegra - Rugged leftfooter may be a step slow.

Steve Cherundolo - Despite size (5'6", 145), boasts seven years in German football.

Jimmy Conrad - MLS Defender of Year, great locker room guy.

Gregg Berhalter - Replaced the injured Cory Gibbs.

Eddie Lewis - Lethal crosses earned him "American Beckham" tag.

Oguchi Onyewu - Big tourney could result in big Euro contract.

Eddie Pope - Back from injuries, steady vet makes third Cup trip.

MIDDLE MANAGERS

If things go well for the U.S., we'll all be thanking the midfielders.

The unpredictable, creative attack comes from Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, while team captain Claudio Reyna maintains a steady pace. But it's the health of John O'Brien, who has battled a series of injuries since a great performance in 2002, that could be the difference-maker. If O'Brien can go, the U.S. will be able to focus on a possession-driven game. If he can't, look for Ben Olsen or Pablo Mastroeni in the destroyer role, creating turnovers that spring Donovan and Beasley on the counter.

"Landon and I can run by anyone," says Beasley, a star in the signature 2002 victory over Portugal despite taking three pregame injections to dull the pain in his knee. "Pound for pound, DaMarcus is as tough as any player I've coached," Arena says of the 5'8", 145-pound midfielder.

But he's also said that, four years ago, Beasley and Donovan were just kids, happy to be at the World Cup. They were probably underestimated by the opposition. This time, they'll be closely marked men. "That's cool," Beasley says. "This is the big show. If it's going to happen, Landon and I gotta play big."

Midfielders

DaMarcus Beasley - Wiry winger can take big hits.

Bobby Convey - Dangerous attacker, though D can be a challenge.

Clint Dempsey - Tough on the attack, but watch that temper.

Landon Donovan - Yanks' top player must finish gimme goals.

Pablo Mastroeni - Rugged tackler isn't afraid to mix it up.

John O'Brien - Played all 450 minutes in 2002.

Ben Olsen - Coached by Arena at UVa and DC United; may see limited minutes.

Claudio Reyna - Captain America quietly keys U.S. offense.

HEAD MEN

Who starts up front may be a gameday decision for Arena. Brian McBride will get the nod against the Czechs, if only because he wins more than his share of aerial battles at midfield. Eddie Johnson is coming back from a foot injury, so his role may hinge on how well he fares in pretourney workouts and friendlies. There's also a chance Landon Donovan will slide up into a withdrawn forward slot. Whoever's out there, Arena is sure to run his strikers to exhaustion in each and every match.

The wild card is Josh Wolff, whose speed and timing could make the difference on the break. The 29-year-old Wolff drew a surprise start against Mexico in 2002 (delivering a key assist), but he has yet to live up to the promise he showed in a brilliant performance at the 2000 Olympics. He was the player who had everyone talking at the team's final pre-Cup camp in mid-May. "He's about to turn a corner," Arena says. "Looks to me like he's playing his best soccer."

Forwards

Brian Ching - Big (6'1") Hawaiian has scorer's touch.

Eddie Johnson - Ultra-athletic with a nose for the net.

Brian McBride - Dominant in the air; a proven scorer with 10 goals for EPL's Fulham.

Josh Wolff - Savvy speedster's runs create open space.

Jeff Bradley covers the U.S. national team for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com