Not unlike Selection Sunday in March for the 65 teams to make it to the annual NCAA basketball tournament, US national team coach Bruce Arena will announce Tuesday his 23-man squad and 10 alternates for the World Cup in Germany, which starts in just over eight weeks.
Arena’s selection will be covered live on ESPN’s SportsCenter at 6:00 p.m. ET.
Like the NCAA tourney, Arena’s choices will surely spark off debates about who or who shouldn’t have made the final 23. The only difference is that there are no players in the player pool whom you would consider "mid-major". All the players in the pool come from major conferences, which, in turn, makes Arena’s decisions that much more difficult.
What follows is not necessarily the 23 players I would choose, but the 23 I think Arena will choose. A lot of players are no-brainers and thus don’t need much of an explanation. But, for players who might cause some suspicion, I’ll make their case. .
The only real debate here is who is the number two goalkeeper. The only way either Howard or Hahnemann make their debut is through injury or suspension. If the US somehow lose both of their opening matches (not unlikely considering it’s the Czech Republic and Italy) I can’t see Arena denying Keller a chance to win at least one World Cup match before he calls it a day. Keller, despite being the best goalkeeper to ever suit up for the USA by a country mile (yes, I realize Brad Friedel was lights out in the 2002 World Cup, but I can’t get all worked up about a goalkeeper who only is two games above .500 for his entire international career) is currently 0-2 in World Cup matches, and it would be a grave injustice to Keller to have to suffer through a lifetime winless World Cup record.
I don’t think anyone has a real argument for the first six names on that list. It’s the last two that will generate the more heated discussion. Again, Hejduk and Berhalter haven’t made the strongest cases in build-up matches these past few months. The key word here is experience, and Arena will go with that over youth any day of the week, considering that we are talking about two players who probably won’t see much playing time. If the front line players remain healthy and suspension free, having two players with World Cup experience is a huge advantage for Arena over players like Chris Albright, Jimmy Conrad or Jonathan Spector (out anyway with a shoulder injury but deep in consideration). Let’s also consider that, while Hejduk and Berhalter have been sporadic of late, when called upon in past World Cup matches, both players have done well in their appearances. To be honest, it’d be shocking if Conrad makes this squad considering his lack of international experience and not having played for the US during qualifying.
Just like the defenders, there’s not much argument for the top seven players on the list. I realize that Reyna and O’Brien are more heavily insured than China dolls, but their quality and composure are unmatched and vitally needed on what is shaping up to be a rather small and young midfield. Games are won and lost in the midfield in the World Cup and those two go a long way towards giving the US a fighting chance. Olsen is the real debate here, but his play leading up to the big decision is his trump card at the moment. Never mind the fact that he actually pumped in a few goals from his defensive midfield position; he is exactly the type of player that Arena covets inside and outside the locker room. Having the opportunity to witness in person the effect that Olsen has on his teammates the past four years with DC United, it’s easy to see why Arena likes him so much. That last midfield spot came down to Olsen, Kerry Zavagnin and Pat Noonan. At the end of the day, Olsen did more than Zavagnin and Noonan to make this squad.
Two names on this list are the real debate: Twellman and Wolff. Honestly I believe Wolff is on the team because he’s the type of hard working player that Arena loves. Obviously, he did next to nothing in the goal-scoring department during the training camp and subsequent friendlies over the past few months. Not to mention, he probably missed more scoring chances than any of the other players combined. The fact that he was involved in play, though, keeps him on the squad. Plus, he has World Cup experience in his back pocket. I, too, would love to see what Chris Rolfe could do, but this stage isn’t for understudies. As for Twellman, he won the job with his two game stretch against Norway and Japan, where he bagged four goals and two assists. He’s been quiet since then (including no goals in three MLS matches to start the season), as opposed to fellow target man Brian Ching, who has five goals in four MLS matches to start the season, but his falling out had everything to do with his non-existent play for the US during the World Cup training camp. Arena, I think, feels he can get that garbage goal in the latter stages of a tight match from Twellman rather than Ching.
So there you have it, the 23 that I believe Arena will take to Germany. Below are the 10 alternates I believe Arena will select.
GK – Matt Reis
D – Jimmy Conrad
D – Chris Albright
M – Pat Noonan
M – Steve Ralston
M – Kerry Zavagnin
M – Chris Klein
M – Chris Armas
F – Chris Rolfe
F – Brian Ching