U.S. soccer experimenting with roster

By Dimitri Islam

So this won’t exactly be a huge match. Not much will be on the line. Well, check that. At first glance, it seems like absolutely nothing will be on the line.

That’s what it looks like when you take a quick look at the upcoming U.S. Men’s National Team schedule for the rest of 2002. In fact, there’s only one game on the plate for the men: an international friendly against El Salvador this Friday.

After playing some of the most important soccer in U.S. history this past summer in Korea, the men choose to open up their friendly schedule against international minnow El Salvador. Don’t get me wrong, El Salvador is probably a talented side, but they’re hardly a Portugal, Mexico, or Germany. To make matters more uninteresting, for the viewers at home, this match doesn’t mean much of anything. Friendlies rarely do.

When you take a look at head coach Bruce Arena’s roster for the match, however, the view begins to change.

All of a sudden, this game begins to mean something. Perhaps not much for the casual viewer, but, for around a dozen aspiring National Team players, this game could very well be the start of an international career.

The newly announced roster looks quite surprising, and, to be perfectly blunt, extremely young. Virtually no veterans appear on the list. Only youngsters Landon Donovan, DeMarcus Beasley, and flamboyant striker Clint Mathis hail from this summer’s World Cup squad.

In short, this team is totally different from the one that beat Portugal, Mexico, and then nearly upset Germany in the quarterfinal match of the biggest sporting competition on the planet. In place of Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, Adin Brown and Tim Howard will be shoring up the defense and providing a glimpse of the U.S.’s future at the goalkeeper position.

A quick word about the goalkeepers: the future looks extremely bright for the U.S. Not only is Brad Friedel having a career year at Blackburn, but Keller still looks solid, and Brown and Howard look like two extremely promising young goalies. Brown is coming off a great year with the New England Revolution, and Howard has been an impact player for years with the MetroStars. In the next couple of years, the U.S. could realistically have four world-class keepers at their disposal. Not bad when you consider that there are many top-flight teams (England, for example) who can’t even find one steady starting goalie.

The U.S. defense will also look entirely different from the World Cup side. Instead of Sanneh, Pope, Agoos, and Berhalter, the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Chad McCarty, and Eddie Robinson (Eddie Robinson?) will look to stop El Salvador’s offense. Aside from Bocanegra, none of these defenders really seem to have been features in the National Team’s plans, but credit Bruce Arena with keeping all options open. The U.S. head coach always takes an open attitude with all players, and that’s one of the reasons the Americans were so successful this summer.

Arena will willingly take chances on unproven players, and this improves the maturity of the entire team quickly. Many other coaches would go with a more veteran lineup, disregarding the opponent. Arena, on the other hand, is eager to experiment. He wants to raise the bar both for the National Team and the MLS, and giving MLS players quality time with the national side will do just that.

Let’s face it, his roster for the El Salvador match is basically a glorified MLS Under-25 All-American All-Star team. None of the U.S.’s seasoned European players are making the trip back for this friendly. Moreover, none of the older MLS players, like Cobi Jones or Jeff Agoos, are being called up for the match.

No, Arena wants to go with youth. In typical Arena fashion, the front man also wants his young players to develop. Fast. The best way to do this is through international competition.

Overall, the El Salvador friendly should be exciting. U.S. fans will get to see what forward Taylor Twellman can do against international competition. Moreover, supporters will also get to see whether the much-lauded Kyle Martino can create outside of the MLS. The slender Columbus Crew midfielder (Martino weighs in at only 144 pounds) has been generating the offense for the Crew quite well. Martino is young—only 21 years old—and he’s hungry to play at the next level.

Hopefully, this match against El Salvador won’t be a tribute to this past summer’s World Cup side. No, the U.S. certainly made an impact this summer, and they deserve a lot of praise for their play in Korea, but that’s in the past. The El Salvador match won’t be a playing field filled with current, established U.S. stars.

Instead, the friendly will stand as something much more important than a tribute: it represents a tantalizing view of the future.