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May 19, 2008

Nowak to examine fringe players in Toulon

As the U.S. U-23 national team prepares for this week's Toulon International Tournament, it's tempting to think that coach Peter Nowak has the most thankless job in U.S. soccer. With just two months left until he must name his final roster for this summer's Olympics, the gathering in Toulon would seem an ideal opportunity to fine-tune some on-field issues (the U-23 team will represent the U.S. at the Games). But because of external factors, the team heading to France will be comprised mostly of players with only an outside shot of making it to Beijing, making for less than ideal preparation.

With the MLS season in full swing, prying away key performers from their clubs was always going to be a long shot, and Nowak added that some players turned down his invitation to go to France. As such, of the 10 MLS players on the roster, only two -- FC Dallas midfielder Blake Wagner, and Real Salt Lake defender Tony Beltran -- are consistent starters. Yet Nowak is convinced that the opportunity is there to find a diamond or two.

"The players in MLS, we watch them closely," said Nowak. "Also we keep in mind that sometimes in this six, seven, eight-month period, the young players, they [develop], they change your mind ... and we have to watch and observe what kind of progress they are making."

Adding to the selection difficulty is the upcoming spate of friendlies that the full national team has lined up, beginning with the May 28 tilt against England, and continuing with matches against Spain on June 4 and Argentina on June 8. As a result, national team head coach Bob Bradley has selected a pool of 33 players for the three matches, at least 12 of whom are Olympic candidates.

It leaves Nowak in a situation similar to the one Bradley faced at Copa America last summer, where issues outside of his control forced him to dig deep (perhaps too deep) into the available pool of players, and poor results followed. It begs the question of why the U.S. is participating in Toulon at all. But Nowak insists that the Olympic team has plenty to gain, not only from this week's goings on in France, but from the senior team's games as well, where Olympic hopefuls like Freddy Adu and Sacha Kljestan will face difficult opponents.

U.S. U-23 schedule
U.S. vs. Turkey
Wednesday
Toulon, France
9:30 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. Ivory Coast
Friday
La Seyne, France
12:30 p.m. ET

U.S. vs.Italy
Sunday
La Vallette, France
12 p.m. ET

"The most important thing is to see the different faces which we didn't see in the previous camp for the Olympic team," said Nowak. "And from the flip side, you still want to see our players developing in the right way ... Being at the age of 22 or 23, playing versus the same or younger guys is easier, and we want to see our players play versus better competition."

As for those players aiming to shoe-horn their way into Nowak's consciousness, midfielders Wagner, Bryan Arguez and Lee Nguyen, as well as forwards Gabriel Ferrari and Sammy Ochoa would appear to be the prime candidates, especially given the way the U.S. struggled to score goals from open play during the Olympic qualifying tournament last March.

Nowak has also thrown a lifeline to Derby County midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who was cut from the U-23 squad prior to qualifying, but who now has a chance to get back in the Pole's good graces. And Nowak seems inclined to give Feilhaber every opportunity to stake his claim to a spot, despite his lack of playing time at Derby.

"Benny is back, which is very important to see," said Nowak. "It was a tough time for him."

Given the Americans' group stage opponents, a tough time is exactly what seems in store for the them. in Toulon, where they are set to face Turkey, the Ivory Coast, and Italy. The Ivorians' roster is made up of players plying their trade for modest clubs, with Roda JC forward Sekou Cisse possessing one of the more impressive resumés. Yet it's worth noting that their 2007 entrant in the same tournament was of similar construction, and they reached the semifinals.

Turkey meanwhile boasts the considerable talents of Borussia Dortmund attacker Nuri Sahin, who won the Bronze Ball at the 2005 U-17 World Cup, and spent the past year on loan to Feyenoord, where he scored six goals. Sahin has also played for the full national team, as have CSKA Moscow's Caner Erkin and Besiktas' Serdar Ozkan, giving the Turks a solid nucleus.

Italian coach Pierluigi Casiraghi is facing many of the same hurdles as Nowak, with the country's participation in Euro 2008 doing plenty to limit his selection options. That said, his squad still has its share of quality with Empoli forward Sebastian Giovinco, Juventus midfielder Antonio Nocerino, and Cagliari forward Robert Acquafresca the players to watch.

Yet even as Nowak prepares for this week's matches, he's also casting an eye towards the run-up to Beijing. Prior to qualifying, Nowak prepared his squad by emphasizing extended practice time and scrimmages against college teams as opposed to high-level friendlies against other U-23 sides. The strategy came under some criticism, even as the team qualified while rivals Mexico didn't.

"Not to take a shot at the Mexican [U-23] team, but they played five or six very good friendlies, and so what? It's not going to guarantee you anything," said Nowak. "Even when we played the college teams, that gave us another opportunity to look at the players and work on some things."

Despite that payoff, the U.S. coach indicated that a different approach would be used prior to Beijing and that the federation was currently "in negotiations" to participate in a pre-Olympic tournament that he wouldn't name.

Nowak also indicated that he and Bradley have begun discussing the Olympic team's options as it relates to the three overage players that are allowed. But any progress is mitigated by the fact that a likely World Cup qualifier in Guatemala will be taking place at the same time as the Olympics. Throw in the uncertain club futures of some European-based players, and you have what Nowak calls "a tricky situation" as it pertains to who will head to China this summer.

"[Bradley and I] are open-minded, both of us," said Nowak. "Our eyes are open on every possible option before we are going to make a final decision in July, about both the Olympic roster and the senior roster."

Yet the senior team, quite understandably, remains the priority, especially with World Cup qualifying set to commence. And come August, those decisions could leave Nowak without his best players, and in a no-win situation.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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