The US men's soccer team that went to Korea last time produced the best World Cup finish in 72 years. And this one?
''On paper, I think this team is better than 2002," coach Bruce Arena said yesterday evening, after he'd named 12 veterans and 11 rookies (including Revolution midfielder Clint Dempsey) to the roster for next month's tournament in Germany. ''But you don't win games on paper. The way this team will be judged is by how we play in the World Cup. It's really that simple."
The 2006 team, anchored by four-timers Kasey Keller in goal and captain Claudio Reyna in midfield, returns eight of the starters who pushed the Germans to the limit four years ago, most significantly Landon Donovan, Brian McBride, John O'Brien, and Eddie Pope. It also includes rising stars like forward Eddie Johnson, midfielder Bobby Convey, and defender Oguchi Onyewu. ''Talentwise, we are deeper, 1 through 23," says Donovan.
Back when there were fewer than two dozen Americans who could perform on a global stage, drawing up a roster was decidedly easier. This time, after watching 85 players wear a national jersey during the past quadrennium, Arena didn't make up his mind about the final four spots until Sunday night.
''A number of players left off arguably could have been part of it," he said.
And a few who might not have made it did: forward Brian Ching, midfielder Ben Olsen (who didn't play in qualifying because of injuries), and defender Jimmy Conrad. ''I'm still in shock," said Conrad, who had double hernia surgery barely a month ago.
Dempsey, the only Revolution player chosen, said it was a dream come true.
''I thought I had a good chance, but you still never really know," said Dempsey, who has started a dozen matches for the national team since 2004. ''So I was a little nervous."
Most notable among the odd men out were Revolution striker Taylor Twellman, defender Gregg Berhalter, and midfielder Kerry Zavagnin. Though Twellman had played in six international matches this year and scored a hat trick against Norway, his sluggish start in MLS play put him on the bubble.
''Form at the moment had a little to do with the decision," said Arena, who named Twellman as an alternate, along with New England teammates Pat Noonan, Steve Ralston, and Matt Reis. ''No question in my mind, Taylor could have been included in the group. It's such a fine line."
Cup experience was a major factor. Three players (McBride, Pope, and Frankie Hejduk) will be playing in their third tournament, and seven more in their second. Performance in crucial qualifying matches also was important, which largely is what got Ching on the team.
''He did a fantastic job against Guatemala in Birmingham," said Arena, ''and he had a big goal at Jamaica in the semifinal round."
Health -- or lack thereof -- also played a role, particularly for Noonan and Ralston.
''It was definitely a factor," said Arena. ''They've been injured on and off for the last couple of months. That certainly didn't help their cause. That's the part that hurt. They're fantastic guys. We would have loved to have them on the roster."
All but five of the 23 places were determined three weeks ago, Arena said, but the rest weren't decided until last weekend.
''Some were hunches, some were potential," he said. ''With others, it was, we have until June 12 to turn this player around."
Current fitness is critical, which is why training camp, which begins May 10 in Cary, N.C., and subsequent tuneups against Morocco, Venezuela, and Latvia (in East Hartford) may well determine who'll start in Germany.
''I obviously have a picture in my mind as to who the first 11 will be," said Arena, who named 12 European players and 11 MLSers to the roster. ''We need to define ourselves and find the right combination of players and formations that works for our team."
The iffiest piece of the puzzle is O'Brien, who played every minute of every match in 2002 but has been hobbled with leg injuries.
''John's a little bit of a question mark," said Arena, who could replace him by the final May 15 deadline. ''We have six weeks to move him along. We selected him because we believe he can come around."
If O'Brien can remain sound and Reyna can avoid the injuries that have nagged him all season, the midfield, which includes gifted attackers in Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, will be solid. The back line, with four veterans plus muscular newcomer Onyewu, could be the best US group ever. The forwards have speed (which is why Josh Wolff was added) and touch. And the keepers (Keller, Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann), all of whom play in Europe, are top-grade.
''The easiest position to choose was goal," said Arena. ''Those three stood apart."
If this US team appears better than the last one, it also faces higher expectations and a more difficult preliminary group.
After the 1998 squad went winless, nobody expected the 2002 bunch would reach the quarterfinals. With the 2006 team now ranked fourth in the world, the global bar has been raised, even though the Americans face a tougher draw with the Czech Republic (ranked No. 2), Italy, and Ghana.
''My immediate standard is to advance out of group play," says Arena, whose squad needed help from the Koreans to manage it last time after losing to Poland. ''You can't accomplish anything else until you do that. But our thought is that we'll be hanging around Germany for a while."