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Thursday, July 7, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: July 8, 2:27 PM UK
Last chance for fringe players

Marc Connolly

Bruce Arena's summer checklist has to look something like this:

1. Get a tan.

2. Makeup with Claudio Reyna.

3. Win another CONCACAF Gold Cup.

4. Qualify for the World Cup.

5. Try to figure out how to use the "podcast" feature on ussoccer.com.

That's in no particular order, of course.

What you won't find in his master plans is the slimming down of his roster for the U.S. national team. No matter what happens during the next two-and-a-half weeks in the Gold Cup, which could include up to six matches for the U.S., new players will be brought in to the mix and veterans who have not made the 23-man roster for this tournament will get other chances to impress Arena.

In other words, it's more likely that we'll see players play their way out of the pool than see players stamp their claim to "untouchable" status.

Arena finds himself in the perfect situation, as we speak. Since his side is sitting pretty in second place out of six teams in the final round of CONCACAF region qualifying, the Gold Cup can be used more as a way to monitor how his players do under tournament conditions and to continue to establish a pecking order at each position on the field. Had the U.S. not have gotten off to such a strong start in qualifying, the Gold Cup would have been more about preparation for the match against Trinidad & Tobago on August 17 and Mexico on September 3.

There's no question that this tournament will get his squad ready for the upcoming qualifiers, but on the larger scale of things it'll be about Arena continuing to learn about what his players are made of. Several questions linger about the current cast of players he has brought in for Gold Cup:

Is Clint Dempsey a player who can thrive on the international level or is he still a bit young to make the jump from MLS star to national team starter?

Will goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann make any inroads at becoming the front-runner to be Kasey Keller's backup over others such as Joe Cannon, Kevin Hartman, Tin Howard and Matt Reis?

Is Brad Davis capable of contributing at the national team level, or is he simply a player who has gotten off to a good start with his club team?

What's the deal with Santino Quaranta? After getting a surprise call-up to replace the injured Eddie Johnson, will the 20-year-old do anything special that earns him a spot on the roster for the Trinidad & Tobago match next month?

Can Jimmy Conrad excel at this level as a center-back?

Will Pat Noonan rebound from a poor showing in the last qualifier against Panama?

Do veterans Tony Sanneh and Chris Armas have anything left in the tank at the international level?

Will John O'Brien ever be able to contribute?

Is this the tournament where Conor Casey states his case to be a definite call-in or does he remain back in the pack behind Brian McBride, Eddie Johnson and Josh Wolff with other strikers like Brian Ching and Taylor Twellman?

Who is the left back for this team going forward: Greg Vanney, Frankie Hejduk or someone else who isn't on this roster such as Chris Albright?

Can this side now be truly considered Landon Donovan's team?

The list of questions could go on and on. Then again, one could say that at almost any time in the year-and-a-half it takes to guide a team through the difficult terrain of World Cup qualifying. Even more questions lingered at this stage of the game in 2001 when the U.S. was at the halfway point in qualifying.

What's important right now is that the U.S. gets quality matches under its belt. To do that, it must take care of business in group play because their opponents in Group B -- Cuba, Canada and Costa Rica - isn't exactly Murderer's Row. The match against the Ticos on July 12 in Foxboro, Mass., will be intriguing since the two sides played each other only a month ago in Salt Lake City (U.S. won 3-0). But the first two games against Cuba on July 7 and Canada two nights later shouldn't be real tests.

Arena and his side will only take something truly positive out of this tournament if it moves on to face sides like longtime nemesis Mexico, South Africa - a team that has qualified for the last two World Cups -- and Colombia, which is never an easy opponent and is making a push to be one of the four teams to represent the CONMEBOL region in the 2006 World Cup.

At this point in time, anything less than an appearance in the Gold Cup final on July 24 at Giants Stadium will have to be looked at as a disappointment.

With the World Cup less than a year away and qualifying for a spot on the horizon, every match the U.S. national team plays is important. There's a definite working list of about 13 or 14 players who aren't going anywhere and would have to completely fall on their faces or suffer an injury over the next several months to not be in the plans for Germany. But there's an even bigger list of players who are either on the cusp of being a regular with this team - guys like Casey, Kerry Zavagnin, Gregg Berhalter, Bobby Convey - or are in need of a standout performance somewhere along the way to stay in the mix.

For Ben Olsen, who hasn't played for the national team since February 3, 2003, in a friendly versus Argentina, that is truly the case. Same goes for Armas and Sanneh. With a poor showing, this Gold Cup could easily represent the last time each of these three veterans get a shot with the national team.

If that's going to be the case for any of the younger players on the roster, it won't be too difficult to figure out who is staying and who is going come the end of July at the completion of this tournament.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.




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