The road uphill (Part I): U.S. men’s national team D has questions at goalkeeper, but a solid back four

The U.S. men’s national team has a road to travel, many miles to go, and teams to defeat-before coach Bruce Arena and his staff go to sleep.

A daunting task faces the USMNT (currently 1-0-0 with three points), a perilous journey wrought with World Cup qualifiers versus rival Mexico at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City (the U.S. hasn’t won in Mexico, 0-21-1 all-time, 0-7-1 at Azteca), and at home versus dangerous Guatemala just three days later, in Birmingham, Ala. Before the U.S. even arrive in Utah for an historic June 4 match versus Costa Rica, the first-ever U.S. men’s match in the state-the Nats could either be looking pretty with as many as nine points, or looking bad with as few as three.

Two exhibitions precede the three World Cup qualifying matches, including tomorrow’s in California versus Colombia. After that, they start training in high-altitude areas of Colorado, finishing with a March 19 friendly in New Mexico versus Honduras-all in preparation for the two-games-in-four-days trip, prior to a long two-month break in games before the U.S. men visit Utah. Many questions have yet to be answered, including who will be the No. 1 goalkeeper on March 27 versus mighty Mexico.

Is Kasey Keller too old to start between the posts? Is Tim Howard mature enough to overcome his recent benching at England power Manchester United, and live up to his potential? Sir Alex Ferguson, the autocratic Scot and Man U coaching legend, obviously saw something in Howard, who was featured recently on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Something you may have heard about Howard is he has Tourettes’ Syndrome. He has been lambasted in the English press for this, having been called “disabled” in several publications.

Something else you may not have heard about Howard is that he is the future of U.S. goalkeeping. No U.S. keeper, before or since 1950, has ever started the opening match in a Manchester United uniform. Howard did. Suffice to say that we won’t know whether Keller or Howard is the U.S. starter until March 20 at the earliest, when Europe-based players enter USMNT camp. But that’s one piece to the puzzle.

Let’s breakdown the No.11 team in the world, starting on defense: GK – Locks: Kasey Keller (B. Munchengladbach (Ger.), Tim Howard (Manchester United). Maybes: Jon Hartman (L.A.), Jonny Walker (N.Y.), Joe Cannon (Colo.) Caps: Zach Thornton (Chicago), Nick Rimando (D.C.). Keller’s always a sure bet for Bruce’s team, unless he’s either a. injured or b. playing in Europe in an important match. Howard is Keller’s heir apparent, and has been for a while. But Howard isn’t playing in England at the moment. This means more to Arena than some think. Arena looks very carefully at European players and how they perform overseas to help make his decision. Hartman is a possibility-if either of the other two are hurt. He is currently in camp as the No. 3. Walker is No. 4. Cannon may slip into games on March 9 and March 19, but that’s for insurance. Rimando could also get capped.

D – Locks: Eddie Pope (RSL), Cory Gibbs (Feyernoord [Holland]), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96 [Ger.]), Frankie Hejduk (Columbus), Greg Vanney (SC Bastia [France]). Maybes: Oguchi Onyewu (Standard de Liege (Bel.), Jonathan Spector (Man. U), Dan Califf (L.A.), Gregg Berhalter (Energie Cottbus [Ger.]), Chad Marshall (Columbus). Caps: Carlos Bocanegra (D.C.), Jimmy Conrad (K.C.), Pablo Mastroeni (Colo.), Richie Kotschau (Colo.).

The starting back four is solid, with Hejduk moving to the defense from midfield, as his clock is ticking. Pope (the all-time leader in caps among active defenders with 66) and Gibbs (6’3″), a younger, taller version of Pope (6’1″), anchor the central defense, with Gibbs also seeing time on the wings, depending on the U.S. opponent, as well as ‘Dolo, a Bruce fave. (2 pts, 5 starts in 2004) Berhalter is a definite, too. (4 games started in 2004, 342 minutes). Bocanegra is a rising star (6 points in 2004) and Mastroeni a versatile defender/midfielder (459 minutes, 5 starts in ’04) who does whatever is asked. So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either capped in the March exhibitions and beyond. Sanneh, a big, physical defender, was in fine form in the last qualifying round, logging 242 minutes, mainly in the latter stages of matches.

Marshall is also a newcomer to the Nats, but a solid all-around player. Altogether the U.S. has a solid defense, with just a few questions in goal. They should be answered, though, by the time they visit Utah on June 4. Tomorrow: Breaking down the U.S. offense

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