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U.S. expands World Cup roster search Tuesday

WashPost: MLS players like Adu will have their chance to impress Arena
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MLS players like Freddy Adu will have their shot at making the U.S. roster for the World Cup starting Tuesday when coach Bruce Arena announced his first pre-camp training roster.Bas Czerwinski / Ap File / AP
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Bruce Arena knows who his team will play in the first round of the 2006 World Cup. He knows who looms in the next stage, if his team makes it that far. He knows the German cities where those matches will be played, the times of kickoff, where his team will practice and in which hotel it will be based.

All the vital details are in place. Now comes the tricky part: figuring out a plan to succeed at the World Cup again.

Arena, the Fairfax-based coach of the U.S. men's national soccer team for the past seven years, has just less than six months to ready his players for the sport's quadrennial tournament and prepare to prove to the sport's international establishment that the Americans' quarterfinal run in 2002 was not an anomaly.

The first step in that process will come Tuesday, when Arena announces the roster for his first pre-Cup training camp, set to open Jan. 4 at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

With the European-based players in season, most of the invitees will come from dormant MLS teams, including 16-year-old Freddy Adu and a few of his D.C. United teammates.

Friendly matches have been scheduled against Canada, Norway and Japan this winter on the West Coast, allowing Arena to narrow the player pool and better gauge his team's strengths and weaknesses heading into the critical spring months, when all his players gradually become available.

"I think I can come close to naming 23 players today," he said of the final roster during a recent interview in Leipzig, Germany. "However, there are a number of issues like there always are. Some players have injuries right now. What are some of the MLS players going to look like coming back from break? And how quickly will they get into form? It's a little bit difficult right now."

The official roster isn't due until May 15, 3 1/2 weeks before the 32-team tournament begins in Munich with the host country facing Costa Rica.

The Americans were drawn into a difficult first-round group last week with three-time champion Italy; the Czech Republic, ranked second in the world; and emerging African power Ghana. If the United States advances to the round of 16, it likely would face defending champion Brazil.

Although the schedule is imposing, Arena believes success in 2002 provided an immeasurable boost in confidence.

"Psychologically, it's important for your players to know they can step on the field and win in the World Cup," he said. "In 1990, we didn't win any games. In '94, we weren't particularly good but, having said that, we got out of group play -- fair enough. Ninety-eight is a disaster [no wins], so think about our players stepping onto the field in 2002. You think they stepped on with a bunch of confidence? For some of them, there was some scar tissue there. This time, at least, we've gotten over the hump psychologically that we can win on a given day."

The core of the U.S. roster won't be much different from 2002: forwards Landon Donovan and Brian McBride and midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Claudio Reyna.

Kasey Keller has replaced Brad Friedel, who has retired from international competition, as the starting goalkeeper; Steve Cherundolo, a German Bundesliga veteran, has locked up the right back position; and Pablo Mastroeni, another '02 holdover, appears to be the front-runner in defensive midfield.

But over the next several months, Arena will have the challenge of identifying the rest of his back line, particularly left back, find a starting right-side midfielder and fill out the bench.

Oguchi Onyewu, who grew up in Montgomery County and plays in Belgium, is a menacing central back with size (6 feet 4) and strength (210 pounds) who could match up well with the Czech and Italian strikers. Cory Gibbs, Carlos Bocanegra, Gregg Berhalter and Eddie Pope are the other candidates in the middle.

At left back, without any other clear options, Arena appears to be leaning toward Eddie Lewis, who has played in the midfield most of his MLS and English league career.

United's Santino Quaranta will have the opportunity to win the right-side midfield job, although 10-year MLS veteran Steve Ralston seems to have the edge. Arena also could move Beasley, who usually plays on the left flank, to the right.

Injuries, however, are threatening to disrupt the process. This year, Reyna, Beasley, Gibbs, promising forward Eddie Johnson and veteran midfielder John O'Brien have missed significant time.

Dealing with injuries to O'Brien, a key member of the '02 squad who has played sparingly the last few years because of injuries, is not new to Arena.

"That's a broken record," Arena said. "We're just hopeful he'll be ready to play in the World Cup, but we'll see. Obviously, if healthy and in form, he's a fabulous player to have on our team. That's a hard one to predict, when he'll be available."

After using all but one of his field players in '02, Arena knows the importance of identifying the right reserves. Among the long-shot candidates is Adu, who also is being wooed by the soccer federation in Ghana, the country where the young forward was born.

Adu's agent, Richard Motzkin, attempted to put an end to speculation that his client would consider playing for his homeland, saying this past week, "While Freddy is flattered by the Ghanaian coach's comments [to pursue Adu], his focus right now is on being mentally and physically fit for the U.S. national team camp in early January."

U.S. preparations also will include a couple of home friendlies, possibly against Honduras and Guatemala, a trip to Europe to face a yet-to-be-determined opponent on March 1 and a game at Germany three weeks later.

In late May, after working out in Cary, N.C., the Americans will mimic their World Cup schedule by playing three games in 11 days before setting up camp in Hamburg, Germany.

Having gone through this process four years ago, Arena believes his players will be comfortable with the preparations.

"You know what lies ahead," he said. "The experience of preparing a team for a World Cup and understanding the magnitude of the event and the requirements necessary to be successful always helps. There's no substitute for experience, and hopefully that helps me and helps the players who have been through it."