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Sunday, January 22, 2006
During the winter friendlies that begin Sunday against Canada, Bruce Arena will continue sorting out his summer traveling contingent. The two positions that need the most sorting out are right midfielder and left back.

It would be wise to watch whom Bruce plays and how he plays them over the next four matches. I am going to try to get to the bottom of the issues, starting with the right midfield position.

We have already seen all the options for right midfield over the past two years - all 10 of them. No new candidates have made it to camp.

It must be glaringly obvious how negative I am on this subject. How would you feel after sitting in freezing Hampden Park to watch two very mediocre performances from players who you thought might be the "future" of our right midfield?

Scotland was a very important testing ground for the wing positions. The US was playing against a slower team, and the central midfield did not have its two main distributers, Claudio Reyna and Landon Donovan. The fact that the right side of the field produced few good chances was disappointing.

I certainly don't believe that I am the only person that feels this way. There is a reason that Eddie Gaven is not in the camp right now.

To be honest, it is hard to really remember that he even played in the match. Gaven was very static, on and off the ball. He rarely took runs that would open up the defense. With the ball, he opted for quick short passes that often left the recipient in trouble, leading to a turnovers from which the Scots could easily counter.

Defensively, he didn't make many moves either. He often would try to pressure the ball, but Scotland rarely had any trouble finding their way around him.

If you simply looked to the other side of the field, to DaMarcus Beasley, you would see the qualities needed from a wing player.

Without a distributive center midfielder, Beasley came back often to take the ball forward, moved middle to help keep the ball moving and got behind the defense. By comparison Gaven held tight to his line and showed no creativity in the attack.

When Quaranta came on at the start of the second half, I was excited. Santino has been a good sub for the US ever since making his debut against Cuba in the Gold Cup.

He brings a lot of energy, gets up and down the field well and is often able to deliver good crosses into the middle.

Sadly, this was not on display in Scotland. Quaranta played much better than Gaven, but not well enough.

Santino did move well without the ball, and also played better balls with his teammates to make the right side of the field a viable attacking option in the second half - although substituting Ben Olsen for Kerry Zavagnin may have also factored into the raised performance on the right side of the midfield.

I don't want to be misunderstood; these two players have a lot of upside. Eddie Gaven is only 19 and Santino Quaranta is 21, both players should factor heavily in the World Cup squads for South Africa and beyond.

In the meantime, players with more experience should be considered, especially when stepping onto the battlefields of Europe.

When playing the name game, the first person to come to mind when describing an experienced right midfielder is Steve Ralston.

At 31, he is the oldest to have featured recently at the position and is in camp looking to prove that he is still a worthwhile addition to the World Cup squad. To be frank, that does not please me at all.

I honestly do not think I have ever seen Ralston play at a level that has ever convinced me that he is better than either of the aforementioned players.

I know some would insist that by scoring the first goal in our great victory over Mexico in Columbus he deserves respect, but I have to remind you that the goal should have been Oguchi Onyewu's to begin with.

One has to wonder, who would fit better in a World Cup squad? Would you rather bring a relatively old guy with no future in major international tournaments, or the future of the American midfield?

Of course, those questions assume that no one I have mentioned would go to Germany with a starting position. There are other options that have been explored in the past by Bruce Arena.

First, the trend of moving players to new positions could continue. Second, with a full complement of healthy players for once we could ditch the flat midfield and go back to the box.

Referencing the Scotland game again, we saw two brief periods where Beasley and Gaven switched sides of the field. It seems to have been a planned play on the part of the US, but nothing really came of it. DaMarcus could not bring any of the magic that he was creating on the left to the right.

There are other players that could factor into a similar experiment though. Bobby Convey has been tearing up in the Championship and has occasionally switched sides with Glen Little midgame to throw off the other team.

It works and Convey is still effective on the right side of the field. Then again the Coca Cola Championship isn't exactly the World Cup.

I think the second option is the most plausible and would yield the best results for the US, allowing them to field the best players possible.

With Beasley and Donovan roaming as attacking midfielders, and Claudio Reyna and a player to be named later (John O'Brien, if healthy) in the middle, the US midfield would be very formidable.

The balance of extraordinary speed in the front and precise, consistent passing from behind should find gaping holes in any defense. Other teams that we play are often much bigger than us, especially the European teams - but if we held a track meet, it generally wouldn't be close.

By keeping Landon back in the midfield, it will allow him to be more creative and it will free up another striker spot for the likes of Eddie Johnson or Josh Wolff.

With Wolff or Johnson up top, the Beasley-Donovan in the midfield the American attack's speed would be largely unrivaled in Germany.

The problem with using a box in the midfield is that it requires very strong play on the wings from the full backs. The set up is too narrow to effectively get cross after cross into the middle.

That suits the US fine, considering only McBride is really good at taking balls out of the air - but you still need that threat.

Right back is covered well by Cherundolo, but left back is a serious issue. Without a bookend duo that can get forward to deliver the occasional cross, we will not be able to effectively run an offense, no matter how the midfield lines up.

The box can only be employed, however, when we have our best and fastest players. It simply cannot appear until the final warmups to the Cup when the full squad is assembled (fingers crossed).

Until then, we will have to watch as Bruce toys with other options from the MLS players we have.
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