Hejduk, Beasley could start in U.S. World Cup openerPosted: Tuesday June 04, 2002 2:14 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
SEOUL -- The final days of preparation for the U.S. World Cup opener against Portugal on Wednesday (5 a.m. ET) have read like a mystery novel. Several spots in the starting lineup are still publicly unknown.
But it's no secret the Americans are facing one of the best teams they have ever faced in a World Cup.
"They were very unlucky to lose in the semifinals of the European Championship two years ago and they qualified for the World Cup in a difficult group that included Ireland and the Netherlands without losing a game," said U.S. assistant coach Glenn Myernick, who has been in charge of scouting the Portuguese.
"They have players who play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe," said midfielder John O'Brien, who sees games nearly every day when not occupied playing for Ajax Amsterdam. "[Luis] Figo plays for Real Madrid, Rui Costa plays for AC Milan, the list goes on and on. We know they're pretty good."
The U.S. will have to be pretty good and get a bit of luck to earn any points, but despite the firepower to be faced, 90 minutes of bunkering isn't on the agenda.
"We have to make them defend us, too," Myernick. "We can't afford to sit back all the time and let them come at us."
Injury concerns cloud the prospects of Claudio Reyna and Clint Mathis. At least two alternatives to David Regis at left back -- Jeff Agoos and Frankie Hejduk -- have been tried in training sessions.
Landon Donovan's stints up front have added another possibility to the forward line, although Coach Bruce Arena had been maintaining for months his best spot with the national team is in midfield.
Reyna was to test his slightly pulled quadriceps -- which he tweaked in training -- yesterday and today, and his participation is likely to be a game-day decision.
Reyna's absence would leave a huge hole in the lineup. Arena could leave John O'Brien as the holding midfielder and revert to the system it played prior to the knee injury that eliminated Chris Armas, or he could use Pablo Mastroeni or Steve Cherundolo alongside O'Brien.
DaMarcus Beasley is expected to start on the left side of midfield, and Earnie Stewart will line up on the right unless he is needed more in the middle in the absence of Reyna.
Beasley will also be asked to track back and defuse the flank forays of Figo and Sergio Conceicao, who work both sides as well as the middle. Portugal tries to isolate players against the outside backs one-on-one while leaving Pauleta to occupy the central defenders.
Hejduk has emerged as the most likely insertion should Arena finally decide enough is enough regarding Regis' glaring errors -- or he needs another hard worker in midfield.
Even if Reyna starts, he's not likely to carry a lot of the play. Others -- Donovan and Mathis spring to mind -- must help control the ball until they can pierce the Portuguese defensive shield.
The strength and power of Brian McBride could be neutralized by the rugged central pairing of Portuguese defenders Fernando Couto and Jorge Costa.
Speed, in the form of Josh Wolff, may be the preferred choice, as those defenders are not the swiftest. Uncertainty over the status of Figo has been disregarded in the American camp. A troublesome ankle may limit his effectiveness, but the U.S. expects to see him.
"It is not a new thing for me to have opponents pay special attention to me," Figo said Tuesday. "I'm used to it. So the normal thing for me to do would be to move around a lot on the field.
"I'm in better physical condition than I was a month ago and I expect to play as I usually do."
Portugal fields a four-man attack force supported by a pair of central midfielders. Pauleta is the nominal striker, but behind and alongside him -- interchanging freely -- are three players: Figo, Sergio Conceicao and perhaps Joao Pinto.
Playmaking midfielder Rui Costa could be used in the three-man line, although he often lines up deeper alongside holding midfielder Petit.
In Portugal's four-man back line, outside backs Rui Jorge and Nuno Frechaut seldom overlap, but they do step forward to support the attack and clip balls into the attacking third.
Portugal, like the U.S., has two talented goalkeepers and the choice isn't likely to affect the match significantly. Victor Baia, who with 76 caps is far more experienced, missed all 10 qualifiers while undergoing four knee surgeries over a 17-month period. He has regained fitness and might be picked over Ricardo.
In the 1990 World Cup, the U.S. lost to host Italy, Czechoslovakia and Austria. The 1994 team beat Colombia, tied Switzerland, and lost to Romania and Brazil. Four years ago Iran, Germany and Yugoslavia all came out on top against the Americans.
The 2002 Portugal team might not yet be the match of 1990 semifinalist Italy and 1994 champion Brazil, but it has the potential and talent to reach the final four.
Only by a concerted, cohesive effort can the Americans blunt the skill, fluidity and speed of the Portuguese attack. Keeper Brad Friedel is likely to be rather busy and he's not all that bothered about the 21 players on the field with him.
He replied, "no" and "no" when asked, respectively, if he cared about who would play for Portugal and if Portugal cared about who was going to play for the U.S.
"They're good, we know that," he said. "We have to play very well to get a point or beat them. We know that, too. Now it's just a matter of going out and getting it done."
O'Brien believes five weeks of training camps and games have honed the team's cohesion. It will be needed.
"I think that [team spirit] could be one of our strongest points," he said on the eve of his first World Cup appearance, a milestone he could share with as many as seven teammates.
"We have 23 guys who are all a good group of guys, and they go out and play with each other and fight for each other. That collectiveness is one of our best attributes."
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.