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Because Bruce Arena has always seemed to be a good learner, I suspect that the lessons of his team's first dip into 2002 World Cup qualifying will eventually be translated into something positive. But make no mistake about this: Arena and his players are facing their first truly stern tests since the coach took over in October, 1998, and began to remake the national team. It is too strong to say that the performances against Guatemala and Costa Rica were a disaster, but it is not unfair to say that the team did not meet expectations and the coach failed to handle some of the pressure as effectively as he might have. It does not make good political or soccer sense to walk out of a post-game press conference, nor is it particularly wise to leave the impression that you thought the better team lost. Tact, sometimes, goes further than what you might be feeling is the truth. Two weeks back, when the team gathered in South Florida to prepare for the back-to-back journey into Central America, Arena said that his players were not "naive" about what awaited them. The performances proved that incorrect. The players did not handle the heat of Mazatenango well, expending far too much energy in the first 45 minutes of that Guatemala match, and they did not keep their composure in the chaos at the end of the Costa Rica match. That could make a return visit to Costa Rica next year even more difficult. But let's be fair: Bruce Arena and many of his players are just starting to learn what World Cup qualifying is all about. You can watch tapes, watch matches, talk to the people who have been there, but the experience of competition at this level must be absorbed. Repeat: because Arena has always shown himself to be a good learner, there will be positives taken from a one-point start. Perhaps the most difficult part of the performance in Guatemala and Costa Rica is that you feel Arena had things mostly right. Unlike the 1998 World Cup campaign, when Steve Sampson's lineups grew increasingly difficult to explain, Arena probably had the best players available in the best positions. He even covered the unexpected loss of both Robin Fraser and Eddie Pope for the match in Costa Rica, the unfortunate Gregg Berhalter a solid replacement for Fraser and Greg Vanney stepping in to minimize the loss of Pope. Of course, it would have been nice to have had Jeff Agoos, Brian McBride and Joe-Max Moore, not to forget Ben Olsen and Steve Cherundolo, available for duty, but virtually no national team ever has its best group on call on game day. Arena has consistently done a good job of focusing on the players he's got, not making an issue of those who aren't around because of injury or loss of form. But the difficult questions now lie ahead. For the first time in a spell, there is no core of winning, confident DC United players around whom to build. Gone are the days when five or six of the national team starters played together at the club level.

And there are questions about fitness levels of the overseas-based players who are out-of-season exactly when MLS players are in mid-season and approaching the point where their fitness may suffer a bit because of the inevitable wear and tear on their bodies. It is not a simple task designing practices to meet the needs of players in different stages of fitness, nor is it easy to meld the players together. Looking ahead, Arena has some tough calls to make. Does he bring in Earnie Stewart (who dislikes flying) for a quick turn-around against Barbados in Foxboro, or can he be confident that the match can be won without tiring the Dutch-based forward? Stewart was alternately very good and very erratic in the two games in Central America, partly because he does not have a completely defined position. He was more of a forward in Costa Rica than Guatemala, but in neither game did he get the kind of balls to chase where he can make defenders worry. Then there is the matter of Eddie Lewis, who has suffered a dramatic loss of form. There were questions about Lewis during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but Arena persisted as the player went through a bad patch not untypical of all developing pros. The sad fact is that Lewis was so ineffective in Costa Rica that there were a couple of times when he was wide open, seen by a player in possession, then ignored. It could be that Lewis needs some time off. Like a baseball player in a slump he seems to be pressing too hard. Resting Lewis, at least for the Barbados game, might open the way for Cobi Jones to move back into midfield. Jones has been consistently the best American player for the past 12-15 months, but his effectiveness is lessened when he cannot move freely from side to side and find his best spot to make an impact. I would like to see him operating as a free-lancing midfielder because he can play effectively on both sides. Then there is the matter of who plays up front. Presuming that McBride will not be available for the match in Foxboro, it could be time to see whether Ante Razov can pair effectively with Moore. Razov was a pleasant surprise in the first two games because he showed nice touches and seemed to play with a freedom that was unexpected in a high pressure situation. Moore was a crowd favorite in Foxboro as a member of the New England Revolution, and might ride a bit of that enthusiasm if he is fit enough and in form for a recall. Defensively, there are also concerns. David Regis has looked solid enough on the left side, but his ability to find space in which to play is somewhat eroded by the poor quality of his decisions and his inconsistent crossing. He is an offensive-minded player, sometimes at the expense of his defense. Arena's decision to experiment with Tony Sanneh as a right back will ultimately prove wise, but with Regis pushing down the left flank and Sanneh looking for space to run forward on the right, there have been too many gaps uncovered. Taking the point further, it is often Claudio Reyna who sees the problem developing and does the cover work, reducing his own effectiveness as a playmaker. For me, Reyna was a success in both games in Central America, but he is not a number 10 in the classical sense. He is too aware of the needs of his team, too willing to fill them, for him to be the creative player at the hub of things. It is easier to say that Reyna should push forward than for him to do so at the expense of keeping a balanced side on the field. You must also recognize that the absence of McBride greatly changes the United States on attack. Without the big man as a target player, the Americans are forced wide too often and become too dependent on the quality of their crosses. When McBride is there, the USA has a down-the-middle approach as well as being able to utilize the wide spaces. It should come as no surprise that the Americans are a work in progress, nor should we be shocked if this team does not ultimately qualify for Japan and South Korea. They do not possess a galaxy of stars, nor a single match-dominating player. You can argue that some of our probable future rivals do -- notably Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras, in the persons of Dwight Yorke and Milton Nunez.

Mexico, certainly, and Jamaica are very confident sides, while Costa Rica is never easy for the United States. If the nations just named turn out to be the final six next year, would you immediately bet the mortgage on the Americans finishing in the top three? You also must be aware that the United States has no automatic right to think it belongs in the final 32 every time the World Cup rolls around. After all, we went from 1950-1990 without being in the big show. The recent successes (and remember that the US did not have to qualify in 1994) have skewed the expectations almost as much as that silly FIFA ranking, which gets so many teams wrong that it is virtually useless. This current team is not as good as its fans believe, and it was nowhere near as ready for prime time as it believed itself to be. We shall soon discover whether reality sets in and is turned into a force for growth and development. There is plenty of reason to believe that can happen, but the warning shot has been fired across the bow.
 
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