For the U.S. Under-23 National Team to reach the final match of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament and earn a trip to Athens in August, Glenn "Mooch" Myernick's defense needs to come together in a big way.
With a few new faces who were named to the squad for the first time in January, the 23s will surely feature a back four that has never played together in a non-friendly. That's where the team's inexperience lies, as well, making this group of defenders the true X-factor for this tournament.
One of the players who is quickly asserting himself into this squad is defender Zak Whitbread, who has yet to earn a cap at the U-23 age level. In fact, his U-23 debut came just last week in a 2-2 draw against Mexican club Tecos when he saw 60 minutes of action as the team's left back.
Having just turned 20 years old, the 6-foot-3, 180-pound back is quickly becoming a rising star within the U.S. National Team program. Though his first appearance with any of the youth National Teams came a mere six months ago for the U-20s at the L'Alcudia International Tournament, he was named to Thomas Rongen's side for the 2003 World Youth Championships in December, and started every match on a backline that included fellow U-23 defender Chad Marshall.
Whitbread has been able to make this transition due to his experience with the famed Liverpool Football Club in England, where he has played since he was 15 years old -- first within the youth academy, and later with the reserves squad which he joined last year.
In 2003-2004, he has been a fixture with the reserves, having played all 90 minutes in 10 of 11 matches after getting a brief taste with the first team over the summer during a tour to the Far East in July.
On the eve of the U.S. squad's opening match against Panama at the 10,000-seat Estadio 3 de Marzo, I caught up with Whitbread over the phone from his hotel room in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Connolly: After 10 days of continuous training down there, has it resembled a mini-camp for you?
Whitbread: Yeah. It's been important for all of us lads to be together for one last chance to prove ourselves. We've been training every day, and have played two games. So we definitely have a feel for the place and the climate. It's given me a chance to get to know my teammates, too. And now we start the games tomorrow, so it's an exciting time for all of us.
Connolly: How has it been for you, personally, since getting the call to join this squad? Most of these players have known each other from other youth National Teams or college soccer or from Major League Soccer, so it's had to have been a bit different for you.
Whitbread: I was elated to get the call, obviously. I know a few of them from the Under-20 World Cup (Marshall, Eddie Johnson and Bobby Convey), so that helped. It's nice to be back with them. And all of the other lads have been great to me, as well. They are all good lads, and are all definitely great players. On the field, it's been good to be with all of them, and away from the pitch we've had a lot of fun. We had a really good time yesterday with the Super Bowl. There was some good team spirit. It was just nice to get away from soccer for a bit.
Connolly: I heard that a few of the guys had to teach you about American football.
Whitbread: Oh yeah. It was good, though. I won a little bet we had. I pulled out of the hat that it'd be nil-nil for the first quarter.
Connolly: In one of those pools where you buy squares?
Whitbread: Yeah. So I got the first quarter, which added to the attraction of the game. It was a good game, too. It was really the first time I had sat down and watched a full game of American football, but I enjoyed it a lot and had fun with everyone.
Connolly: Speaking of the other players, how much did you know about guys like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley before starting to play with the U.S. teams?
Whitbread: Actually, I've heard a lot about them. Going back to the World Cup (2002), they now have reputations around the world. I really first heard about Landon when he went to (Bayer) Leverkusen. I followed him when he was there, as I try to follow the world of soccer as much as possible. He's just a huge talent, who people know about everywhere.
DaMarcus I had seen in the World Cup for the first time. And I first heard about Bobby (Convey) when he was going to play for Tottenham last year. Of course, I got to meet him in Dubai and played with him in the Under-20 World Cup. They all deserve their reputations, and are great players. Once you get into training and play in games with them, you really see just how good they are.
Connolly: Some of the other players who play overseas such as Conor Casey in Germany were not allowed to leave their clubs to play in this tournament. The same was true for Frankie Simek from Arsenal for the U-20 World Cup. How has Liverpool been with all the time you've missed playing for the U.S.?
Whitbread: They've been very accepting with the whole thing. They really understood that it'd be a great experience for me, and that it'll only continue my growth and development as a player. Right now the time is not right for me to be up with the first team, which I understand, so they feel it's best to let me take in all these games and get the experience playing in these sort of competitions. They know what my goals are, and they'll do whatever it takes to help me attain those goals. Plus, they know what it means to me to have this chance with the U.S.
Connolly: How much does the Olympics mean to you? Is it something that's popular on television and that people talk about nonstop during the two weeks in England the way it is in the U.S.?
Whitbread: Well, track and field is a real big deal in the UK. In the Olympics, England is represented as Great Britain, and England wants to keep its soccer team together, so it's not a big deal as far as that goes. I understand what it means to people in the U.S., and to every other nation. It's just not the main attraction over there.
If we qualify for Athens, it'll be a great thing for all of us. It'll be just an incredible experience and a big deal for all of our families and friends. If we get there, it's definitely going to be one of those moments I can look back on and say to my grandkids that I played in it.
Connolly: With this group, will your role be similar to the one you played for Coach Rongen when you were with the U-20s?
Whitbread: Yeah, I think so. From everything that has happened down here and what Coach has said to me, it'll be a lot like Dubai. I'll be in the same position (left back) with the same role.
Connolly: Do you expect to be a starter?
Whitbread: I'm hopeful. I really am. But I can't really say until the team sheet is listed on the board. I just won't know until then.
Connolly: With three games in five days, and potentially five games in 10 days, is it likely that they'll be a rotation with the backs as far as who starts?
Whitbread: If he needs to do that, he can. We have that amount of depth, and just a good squad from top-to-bottom everywhere. It will definitely be tough with the weather, so that might dictate who plays and who doesn't. I'm just looking to play as many minutes as I can, and leave when there's a need for fresh legs out there.
Connolly: As far as team chemistry goes, how has it been with this team? Have you been overloaded with American culture over the past two weeks?
Whitbread: As I said before, they really are all good lads. There's also not a world between us. I spent five years in Singapore and went to international school with American students and American teachers, so I've been exposed to a lot of things. We're not from two different planets. We all enjoy the same sort of things, watch the same games, and listen to the same music. It's just really been a good time, and I haven't felt like an outsider or anything at all.
Connolly: Looking ahead, what have your coaches at Liverpool said to you as far as your progress within the club and where they see you in the future?
Whitbread: Right now, I'm happy to be where I am. The managers won't push me too much, either. It is a very tough step moving up to the first team to play not only in the Premiership, but also in the European cups. They're taking their time with me and allowing me to progress both mentally and physically, hoping that sooner or later I can step in and play with the first team. I'm looking forward to one day accomplishing that goal and being up there, but no one can rush it.
All I can do for now is keeping playing hard and training hard with the reserves and with the U.S. teams until the time is right. And I have plenty of time.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.