ROOKIES TAKE THE BIG STAGE
Bruce Arena got great mileage out of his World Cup newcomers in 2002, and will count on a group of talented newbies to help the cause again this summer.
First-timers such as DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Eddie Lewis, John O'Brien and Josh Wolff provided much of the attack in South Korea, while big stage virgins Gregg Berhalter, Pablo Mastroeni and Tony Sanneh helped solidify the defense.
In Germany, Arena will rely on the likes of Bobby Convey, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Oguchi Onyewu to make key contributions as the 'Nats attempt to naviagte their way out of a stormy Group E draw.
The US are hardly alone in handing big responsibilities to their neophytes; Argentina are among the favorites and will start eight players with no World Cup experience in the opener, including the entire midfield set.
What's more, starlets Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevéz will be the first guys summoned from the bench when the trainer needs some instant offense.
Just to belabor the point: no one on the Czech Republic roster has ever played in the tournament and Holland have only four holdovers from 1998 out of 23.
None of these teams should feel as though success is out of the question and neither should the US, but a certain comfort level must be attained by pledges to this exclusive fraternity.
Some rookies like to ignore the world glare best they can, while others prefer to soak it up – either way, Beasley knows firsthand the most important thing is that they are ready to rumble when the ball drops.
"Some guys will get their first start in a World Cup in the first game, and they have to step it up," he told YA recently. "That's why we picked them."
O'Brien and the rest of the team's veterans had been busy doling out information on the tourney during Cary camp, but says the younger players are all business now.
"Most of the new guys have just been rolling with it," he told reporters during Friday's media session. "Before we got to Germany, guys were asking questions: 'What's it going to be like?'"
Many of the guys seem to downplay taking part in the biggest sporting event on earth, figuring it's just another step taken in their careers.
"That little kid inside of you comes out when you play in MLS," offered Dempsey. "I've already played in some big games."
"I've been in the qualifiers, so I've already went through a lot of experiences, a lot of important games. It's just a matter of doing all the things that got you here."
Johnson, meanwhile, appears to bounce back and forth between taking it all in calmly and appreciating the weight of his situation.
"I think being around the team in qualifiers and playing in the youth World Cups helps, but the expectations and competition gets higher," said the 2003 World Youth Championships Golden Boot man. "A lot of Americans my age and from my background don't get to play in a World Cup."
"One of the things that will help me focus is that this is a life-changing opportunity for me. Hopefully, I can do well and the team can do well."
Convey, on the other hand, is happily anticipating his first taste of World Cup action and plans to let the moment carry him.
"I think if you don't look around and get overexcited, there's something wrong with you," he laughed. "Really, I've enjoyed it more. It'll be amazing."
"I've been able to use that nervous energy you get to my advantage. I might as well try to smile and enjoy because you don't know how long you'll be able to play this game."
Chris Albright is older than most of his fellow apprentices, a fact that changes perspective for the Galaxy man.
"The Olympics in 2000 was my first experience with a similar type of competition," said the defender. "I'm also 27. I'm not 22, so maybe it's a little different for me."
While Steve Cherundolo didn't take the field in 2002, he was with the team the whole way and might enjoy a small edge over the other rookies - that, however, won't keep him from paying attention when one of the trench veterans is talking in the clubhouse.
"I think it's an advantange to know what World Cup is all about, to know what's going to happen," mused the Hannover 96 defender. "It was a good experience, but actually having played in a World Cup is the bigger advantage."
"We really look to our guys who have been in a few World Cups, like Kasey (Keller) or Claudio (Reyna) or Brian McBride. We can learn a lot from those guys."
Regardless of their take, the green Yanks are set for the experience (and pressure) of a lifetime – how they cope may well tell the story of World Cup 2006 for the US.
While the Book of Isaiah surely wasn't referring to Convey flying down the flank on a counterattack, there can be little doubt that the kids need to be alright for the team to make it to the knockouts.