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May 28, 2006

Youngsters gaining ground

The competition for starting spots on Bruce Arena's World Cup team is officially wide open.

Sure, Venezuela didn't offer much in the way of defensive resistance, but there is no denying that a handful of the U.S. World Cup team's young attacking players made strong cases for inclusion in the lineup that faces the Czech Republic on June 12th in the World Cup opener.

Bobby Convey made the strongest case on Friday night, offering the type of wing play that the United States sorely lacked against Morocco just three days earlier. His confidence and skill level are at a point now where it is no longer sacrilegious to suggest that he could get the starting nod ahead of DaMarcus Beasley come June.

Arena has stated on more than one occasion that Beasley is still working to regain his sharpness after falling out of favor at PSV Eindhoven this spring and while the coach always includes the caveat that he believes Beasley will be on form by June 12, you couldn't blame him for starting to consider a new place to put Beasley.

Most telling about Convey's performance was his two-way work rate. His ability to get back defensively, even as he pressed forward relentlessly to provide constant service, means that he clearly heard the message Arena delivered following the U.S. team's 4-1 embarrassment against Germany. In that game, Convey was arguably the best attacking player on the field for the United States, but Arena from choosing to criticize Convey's defensive effort rather than praise his attacking contributions against the Germans.

Some will wonder why Arena is stressing the defensive aspect of the left flank position. The answer is Eddie Lewis, who Arena is likely to use as an overlapping left back. If Lewis is going to be providing that counterattacking presence from the left, the U.S. team needs a left midfielder capable of covering for Lewis defensively. Beasley seems to be the ideal fit because no midfielder on the roster offers his defensive ability, but his form is not where it needs to be right now and the clock to June 12 is clicking fast.

Seeing Convey storm down the flank has to leave more than a few MLS fans scratching their heads as to how this can be the same player who left his potential largely unfulfilled during his time at D.C. United. What seems clear is that Convey has found a home at Reading and playing for the English First Division champions has boosted his confidence to a level that his hard to ignore.

Another player whose confidence should rise following Friday's effort is Clint Dempsey. The fearless Texan struggled to put his stamp on the wide-open contest, but clearly perked up once DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan entered the match midway through the second half.

Dempsey is an all-out attacker who loves nothing more than to take on and beat defenders whenever he is given the chance. Arena admires Dempsey's edge, but is also careful to temper his enthusiasm by constantly reminding him that it is still a team game, meaning the Revs midfielder still has to learn when to be a kamikaze and when to stay in the team concept. Fewer stepovers and more focus on defensive responsibilities and Dempsey could really push for minutes in Germany.

Then there that small fact that Dempsey hasn't gone at the level of defenders he will see in Germany. He did give fits to Poland's defense in March but his true test would have come against Germany. He missed the match due to his well-publicized fight with New England teammate Joey Franchino. That lack of high-level experience could be what sways Arena into starting Beasley, or even Josh Wolff, on the right flank.

You might wonder if Arena would seriously consider starting Dempsey on the right flank against the Czechs, who boast superstar Pavel Nedved on the left flank. It might be a gamble worth taking if you consider the U.S. team's World Cup opener four years ago against Portugal. The Portuguese boasted some world-class wingers, including Luis Figo, but that didn't stop Arena from throwing Beasley at them and letting him frustrate Figo with his constant attacking pressure. Nedved is no spring chicken and hasn't exactly shown a penchant for contributing defensively. If Arena doesn't use Beasley to smother Nedved, Dempsey could get the call.

Another promising development from Friday's match was the performance of Brian Ching. The Houston forward overcame some early jitters to show the effectiveness that made Arena select him ahead of Taylor Twellman. Ching makes smart runs, works hard defensively and provides a physical presence very similar to Brian McBride. The only drawback was some poor passing early on that Ching improved on later in the match.

Then there is Eddie Johnson, who enjoyed one of his best performances of the past year. He is still lacking something technically that keeps him from maximizing the considerable athletic ability he possesses, but there is little question that he could make an impact in the World Cup if his confidence continues to rise. On Friday, Johnson looked like he was having fun and not pressing as much as he had in recent performances. The goal didn't come, but being more involved and gaining the confidence of his teammates will only help Johnson get closer to being the player who terrorized CONCACAF a year ago.

With Ching resembling McBride a bit too much, Johnson still working his way into form, and Wolff being tested at other parts of the field, you have to wonder just who would earn the start alongside McBride at forward if the World Cup were to start today. As unpopular as it might be to consider, Landon Donovan is still a viable option. He hasn't been used as a forward in the first two matches of the farewell tour but part of that has been due to the injury concerns surrounding Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien. If and when Reyna and O'Brien prove healthy and capable of starting, Arena can start contemplating whether the team would be better served having Donovan up front, playing off of McBride.

There are still plenty of questions surrounding the U.S. attack, but Friday's victory did serve to provide a confidence boost for a squad that needed it. The opponent wasn't the level of an Italy or Czech Republic but the pressure to perform for Arena ahead of the World Cup still made Friday's performance valuable to every player who stood out. The same will go for Sunday's match against Latvia, where players will be looking to gain ground in the race for World Cup minutes.

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.