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It Seems To Me . . .

Arena's World Cup selections were made with a purpose.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, May 18, 2006) -- I have received quite a few e-mails from readers asking what I think of the choices by United States men's manager Bruce Arena's for his World Cup roster. I have refrained from commenting until the final roster was turned over to world governing body FIFA, lest my comments ended up being premature.

Now, the U.S. Soccer Federation has filed the roster with FIFA and any changes for Germany 2006 must be made before kickoff of the opening Cup game against the Czech Republic on June 12, for the U.S., accompanied by a doctor's certification of serious injury. So let me give you my thoughts.

Yes, quite frankly, I was surprised by a couple of Arena's selections. But in retrospect, I think I understand why he made some of the selections that he did.

I was surprised, first of all, that Taylor Twellman was left off the team while Brian Ching was given a place. Twellman had gone through a national-team scoring drought, but had ended his scoreless streak earlier this year in friendlies, and I thought that would be enough for him to make the team. Ching, on the other hand, I don't think is as complete a player as Twellman.

At the forward position, I was more surprised that Conor Casey did not make the squad ahead of either Ching or Josh Wolff. I think he is a better player than either, and yes, he is just coming off injury, but he had resumed playing full time for FSV Mainz in the German Bundesliga and should have been completely match-fit by June 12.

Then too, I was surprised that Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad made the squad on defense, while Gregg Berhalter did not. Notwithstanding Berhalter's rather dismal showing in a 4-1 loss to Germany on March 22, he is experienced at the international level and proved to be a key player in 2002. Thanks in part to his play down the stretch, his German team Energie Cottbus earned promotion from the 2. Bundesliga and Berhalter will be playing in the Bundesliga next season. I'm sorry, but no matter how much Conrad has improved in the past six months -- and he has made significant strides -- I don't think there is a Bundesliga team he could be starting for.

No, I was not surprised by Ben Olsen's addition to the squad. The midfielder and Arena have a long-standing relationship and he has been playing as well as he ever has over the past few months. He can fulfill a very specific niche in Germany for this team.

Finally, no, I was not surprised that John O'Brien made the squad. A versatile player who can play several positions in midfield or defense, he is quite simply one of the best Americans playing soccer today. If he is able to go at even 90 percent, he belongs not only on the team, but on the field in Germany.

A number of the commentaries I have seen on the roster, and many of the e-mails I have received, seem to think this squad was put together in the abstract, much like an All-Star team might be. But the central point to remember is this team was put together to play against three specific Group E opponents and then hopefully some more games if the U.S. can advance from its very difficult group.

Arena has known since December who the U.S. would play in the group phase. For the past several months, he has known exactly how he wants to play first against the Czech Republic, then Italy and Ghana. So he did not pick a team in a vacuum. Rather, he selected the players he thought would best carry out the strategy he has devised for overcoming teams such as the Czechs and Italians, considered two of the best in Germany.

Let's look at some of his choices in this regard. Twellman resembles Brian McBride in many ways. Both are target forwards who are good in the air. McBride has improved considerably playing at Fulham in England and now is a much more complete player, but both, by and large, need service if they are going to be effective. They probably don't complement each other well and McBride is the starter.

Ching brings a different style and provides a defensive element that Twellman lacks. Then, too, Twellman has been awful in the first quarter of the MLS season, while Ching has been off to a terrific start, named "Player of the Month" in April.

As for Olsen, one reader wrote that all he can do is run around in the midfield and be disruptive. Well, that is exactly why he was selected. If the U.S. is a goal up with 10 minutes to go, or level and needing to protect a draw, Olsen can go into the middle and disrupt an opponent. In the end, that virtue alone might be a life-saver.

Then there might be another rationale for some of Arena's more surprising picks -- he is a major MLS supporter. His roots are -- and his future well might be -- in the league as a coach, executive or even part-owner. MLS takes great pride that 11 of its players are among the 23 players on the Cup roster.

Arena is taking the same number of MLS players to Germany that he took to the 2002 World Cup and the American league can brag it has nearly as many players on the team as those based in Europe. Had Arena chosen Berhalter over Conrad, and Casey over either Ching or Wolff (or Twellman, for that matter), MLS would not have had the same level of bragging rights.

So, Arena made a couple of what pass for controversial choices. However, considering the firestorm of controversy surrounding the selections of some other coaches, Arena's final roster was quite predictable, especially when looking at the Americans' three specific first-round opponents.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent.

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