Dreams on the Line Coach Bruce Arena faces hard choices as he finalizes the U.S. World Cup roster

April 14, 2002

As Pablo Mastroeni prepared to get on the bus that sat idling in
the bowels of Denver's Invesco Field on April 3, he wore an
unmistakable it's-all-in-God's-hands-now look of relief. He'd
just turned in what's becoming his hallmark--a rock-steady
performance in central defense for the U.S., which beat Mexico
1-0 in a hard-fought game that qualified as a friendly only under
soccer's strict definition of the word. With that, the
25-year-old Mastroeni's four-month tryout for the 2002 World Cup
team came to an end. The Americans have just one more friendly
before coach Bruce Arena plans to announce his roster for the
World Cup in Japan and Korea, which begins on May 31. That game,
against Ireland in Dublin on April 17, will primarily feature the
Europe-based U.S. players. So the match against Mexico was the
last chance for Mastroeni and the other MLS players who find
themselves on the bubble to make an impression on the selection
committee, i.e., Arena.

A year ago Mastroeni wasn't even an American citizen.
(Argentina-born, he moved to Phoenix at age four and was
naturalized last May.) He was with the Miami Fusion, and the only
other playing he did was on guitar in the band Chicken Head
Killas, a rap-folk outfit he formed with two teammates. Mastroeni
is a free spirit; he proposed to Kelly Long on live TV at
halftime of a Fusion game in September. So when Arena gave him a
chance to play his way onto the World Cup team by including him
on the roster for the Gold Cup tournament in January, the
laid-back Mastroeni was eager but not overexcited. "I said from
the start I wasn't even supposed to be there," he says. "Then I
felt I was getting better in every training camp, and it
escalated to where I was getting more games in and feeling more
comfortable with whomever I played with in the back."

In his six games for the U.S. this year Mastroeni made a strong
case for a spot on the World Cup roster. The Americans didn't
give up a goal while he was on the pitch, and he never looked
overmatched. (He's primarily a defensive midfielder for the
Colorado Rapids, who made him the first pick in the MLS
allocation draft after the Fusion folded in January.) But as well
as he has played, Mastroeni might be at the mercy of a numbers
game. Arena can take 23 players to the World Cup--three of whom
must be goalkeepers--and while he doesn't have to submit his
roster until May 21, he plans to pick his team well before then.
In all likelihood, four of those taken will be central defenders.
Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope are locks, leaving Mastroeni, Gregg
Berhalter and Carlos Llamosa in the running for the other two
spots. Llamosa, though unimpressive of late, is the most
experienced of the trio and was a regular during much of World
Cup qualifying. So Mastroeni's fate may hinge on how Berhalter,
who plies his trade for Crystal Palace in the English First
Division, does against Ireland.

While Mastroeni's performance against Mexico gave Arena a
selection headache, the showing of one of his attacking players,
Clint Mathis, had to make him feel sublime. Mathis scored the
lone goal of the game, marking his seventh consecutive start with
at least a point. Incredibly, four years after scoring only one
very ugly goal in the World Cup, the U.S. now considers its
strikers to be a strength. In January, Mathis and Brian McBride,
who netted that lone goal in 1998, each returned from a serious
injury: Mathis had torn his ACL last June, and McBride had had
surgery to repair a blood clot last August. (McBride has also
broken both his cheekbones, a testament to his willingness to
stick his nose just about anywhere to win a ball. "He puts his
body out on the line, and that makes him injury-prone," says
Mathis.) The two form a tough big man-little man combination, as
the 6-foot McBride is easily the best American player in the air.
"That's good for someone like me, who's a little bit smaller and
tries to sniff out the second balls," says the 5'10" Mathis. "Or
he knows I like to play the quick one-two, so he'll post up a
little bit. He's a bigger guy, and he uses his body well up
front. It's easy for me to work off a guy like that." The one
full game the duo has played together this year was a 4-0
dismantling of Honduras in March, in which McBride set up both of
Mathis's goals.

McBride sat out the game against Mexico with a sprained left
ankle, an injury that also kept him out of the Americans' 4-2
loss to Germany on March 27. His presence was sorely missed in
that match, in which the Germans pushed the undersized Yanks all
over the pitch. That manhandling by Germany is cause for concern:
Poland and South Korea, two of the three teams the U.S. will face
in the group phase of the World Cup, play very physical games.

Against Mexico, though, the Americans showed they can battle
through the rough stuff. The match was by no means pretty. At the
half the U.S. hadn't taken a shot and could have been down 2-0
had it not been for the Mexicans' inability to finish. The U.S.
broke through in the second half when Llamosa played a long ball
into the penalty area for Mathis in the 66th minute. Mexican
keeper Oscar Perez and defender Manuel Vidrio collided, leaving
Mathis all alone to finish into an open net. Suddenly down a
goal, the always chippy Mexicans got even chippier. DaMarcus
Beasley, the U.S.'s 126-pound midfielder, was nearly cracked into
two 63-pound midfielders by a brutal challenge from Mexican
defender Melvin Brown, and the game ended with American defender
Frankie Hejduk and Mexican midfielder Alberto Garcia Aspe
receiving matching red cards, Garcia Aspe for throwing a forearm
and Hejduk, apparently, for absorbing it with his jaw.

Arena was clearly pleased that the U.S. was able to win ugly.
"This was a day on which the soccer wasn't great, and you had to
have a big heart to win," he said. As for what the game told him
about the fate of the bubble boys, Arena opted for his standard
poker face, with its hint of an I-know-something-you-don't-know
smirk. "Without a doubt," he said when asked if any decisions had
been made clearer. Then came the smirk. "Nothing I can state
publicly."

He'll fess up soon. Until then Mastroeni won't be sitting on pins
and needles. "I definitely won't dwell on it and lose sleep over
it, because it's something that's out of my control," he says. "I
just moved to Colorado, I have a super wife, just bought a home,
so if I don't have two months of hectic football for the World
Cup, it'll be a beautiful time to relax in Denver. I can't lose
either way. Of course you want to play in the World Cup because
it's your dream, but if not this one, there's always the next
one."

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND FOOT FANCY Mathis has returned from his lengthy injury layoff to become the finisher America has sought for years.

Four years after scoring just one World Cup goal, the U.S.
considers its strikers a strength.

Against Mexico, the Americans showed they can play rough, too.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)