On a balmy late afternoon in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Claudio Reyna makes a mad dash for a loose ball. Hot on his trail is Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky. The two collide and down goes Reyna, clutching his leg and writhing in pain. The stretcher comes out and the U.S. national team captain is carried off the field as his teammates try to figure out who will wear the armband now. Reyna's World Cup might be over after just a few minutes.
OK, maybe Bruce Arena hasn't woken up in a cold sweat after experiencing this very nightmare, but could you blame him if he has? The World Cup is six months away and Reyna, his captain and arguably the most important player in the U.S. national team pool, is recovering from a broken ankle. The injury should not jeopardize Reyna's presence in this summer's World Cup, but it does make you stop and think about just how scary life would be without him in a national team uniform come June.
Sure, there are other valuable players. Landon Donovan is the most talented field player while DaMarcus Beasley continues to improve playing in the pressure cooker of Europe's top flight. Kasey Keller is probably the most popular choice for the title of "most indispensable U.S. player," but let's be honest. You don't think Brad Friedel would come out of retirement to play in this summer's World Cup if Keller went down with an injury? Arena would be on his doorstep faster than you could say Auf Wiedersehen and Friedel would surely be willing to man the pipes against the likes of the Czech Republic and Italy.
There is no one for Arena to coax out of retirement to do what Reyna does, which is provide a steadying influence and strong direction in the U.S. midfield. Arena knows full well that he can't just send out a collection of young central midfielders to try and break down the three midfields that await the Americans in Germany.
The one other player who could confidently fill that role is John O'Brien and nobody can predict whether the oft-injured midfielder will be ready by the World Cup. He is still fighting to get back on the field for his club team, ADO Den Haag, and is currently in limbo in California, trying to get healthy enough to be an option for Arena like he was in 2002.
And what if both midfielders are unavailable come June 12, when the United States plays the Czechs in Gelsenkirchen? Arena will still have options to be sure. Donovan, Bobby Convey and Pablo Mastroeni would be the likely components to Arena's central midfield if Reyna and O'Brien were unavailable, but what would that mean for other positions? Can Bruce really afford to use Donovan somewhere other than up-front, alongside Brian McBride? Can he spare Convey as a flank option after all but assigning Eddie Lewis to a defensive role on the national team?
These are just some of the questions Arena is probably asking himself as he surveys the practice fields at Home Depot Center and puts his current group of players through the motions in national team training camp. Arena is looking out at his current group, hoping some stars can emerge from the pack. He hasn't forgotten how Beasley and Mastroeni emerged in 2002 and showed enough talent to give Arena confidence that they could play key roles in that summer's World Cup.
Who could it be this time around? Might Freddy Adu mature enough, on and off the field, to warrant a serious look? Is Arena looking at Kyle Martino wondering what happened to the savvy young playmaker who looked so good against Cameroon in the 2003 Confederations Cup before an overzealous Cameroonian defender chopped him down? Could Brian Carroll be this cycle's Mastroeni?
These are the type of questions Arena is facing, not just because two of his most influential midfielders are so injury prone (three if you include Beasley, whose style of play can attract some ugly challenges), but because the World Cup's Group E doesn't have a single midfield you could consider weak. Whether it is Ghana's imposing tandem of Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah, an Italian group that can include Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, or a Czech unit that can field the likes of Pavel Nedved, Rosicky and Karel Poborsky, the midfields of Group E boast the kind of talent the Americans will struggle against without Reyna or O'Brien.
Even though the opening kickoff at Gelsenkirchen is still six months away, the prospects of not having Reyna and O'Brien available are enough to drive American fans crazy, and just might be enough to have Arena fighting some pretty scary nightmares.
He said what?
"You never know what might happen. They might take you for a different reason, other than being out there and scoring goals. They might even take you for being a good teammate."
That was none other than Freddy Adu, when asked by the Associated Press about his chances of making the World Cup team. You think that last sentence raised some eyebrows back in D.C.? Somewhere, Peter Nowak must be choking back a laugh.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com