The Final 23
We've played our last friendly before the deadline for finalizing our WC roster, so now it's time for Bruce to decide on the final 23. Although Bruce says that he'll be monitoring players' performance in MLS over the next three weeks, I have to think that with the exception of one or two spots, the roster is set. As far as who the final 23 will be, here's my prediction:
GK: Keller, Hahnemann, Howard
Keller, of course, is a no brainer. Although I haven't actually seen him play, Hahnemann, by all accounts, has been outstanding for Reading this season. And after Keller and Friedel, Howard is probably the American 'keeper with the most natural talent. He has no doubt suffered from his lack of playing time with ManU, and when he played last season, seemed prone to embarassing mental lapses. But as far as natural ability goes, he's head and shoulders above the competition.
Defenders: Bocanegra, Onyewu, Pope, Gibbs, Cherundolo, Hejduk, Albright
The only two guys on the above list who are not locks to make the final roster are Hejduk and Albright. Hejduk makes the cut because of his versality (he can play either left back or right back), and because of his experience and strong performances in previous World Cups (I still remember how he was one of the few U.S. players who didn't look scared playing against Germany in WC '98). Albright makes the roster as a backup to Cherundolo on the right. Against certain teams, or in certain situations, I think Bruce will want to have the option of playing someone with Albright's physical presence at right back, rather than the diminutive Cherundolo or Hejduk. Albright has also done well in the chances he's gotten with the nats. He had a good second half against Jamaica, and was twice robbed of a goal by sterling saves from the Jamaican 'keeper.
Conrad and Berhalter get cut, simply because we're so deep at center back. Although Conrad and Berhalter are both competent defenders, Boca, Gooch, Pope and Gibbs are just in a different class. Spector gets cut simply because he doesn't have the experience, which is really too bad because he's got boatloads of talent. If this World Cup came a year later, then I think Spector would have been a lock to make the final roster.
Midfielders: Reyna, O'Brien, Donovan, Beasley, Lewis, Convey, Mastroeni, Dempsey, Olsen
The first seven guys listed above are all locks, assuming they stay healthy (which is a big assumption in the case of Reyna, and an even bigger assumption in the case of JOB). Lewis or Convey likely will end up playing as much left back as they will midfield, but since they're natural midfielders, and play there with their clubs, I'll list them as midfielders.
The only two players listed above who are on the bubble are Dempsey and Olsen. Olsen makes the cut because he is a team leader, who gets the guys fired up both in practice and for the matches. Because of that, Arena will want him around, and he'll help the team even if he never actually gets a minute of playing time in the World Cup. He plays with a lot of heart, always working his ass off and giving 110%, a quality that Arena no doubt finds particularly endearing. He's also an Arena favorite -- a UVa boy, and when he played for Arena at DC United, he actually lived with the Arenas his first year or two there. Arena also had good things to say about Olsen after his performance in the Jamaica match. Barring a rash of injuries to our other midfielders, I'd be very surprised if Olsen starts. I can see him being called in as a late game sub for a forward if we're ahead and want to protect a lead.
Dempsey makes the team as much by default as anything else. Ralston looks like he's still injured, and had a stinker against Jamaica. Noonan, while competent, just hasn't looked as dangerous as Dempsey in the chances they've gotten with the nats. Dempsey has shown, both in MLS and with the nats, that he has a nose for the goal. He also makes things happen -- the U.S. looked much more dangerous against Jamaica once Dempsey was subbed in. Of course, there are things that could keep Dempsey off the final roster. The fact that he punched out Franchino certainly doesn't help. And I get the sense that Bruce just doesn't really like Dempsey all that much. Dempsey is also young, and could use a bit more seasoning at the international level (although I think he learned a lot when he ended up on his ass more often than not in the friendly against England). Bruce commented after the last World Cup, though, that the World Cup is a young man's game. No doubt Bruce was referring, at least in part, to the performances of Beasley and Donovan, who were both 20 years old at the time. Beasley in particular had about as much international experience at the time of the '02 WC as Dempsey has now.
Forwards: McBride, Johnson, Twellman, Wolff
These are the same four forwards that 'Celo predicts, and I'm with him on this. McBride is an obvious lock. Johnson makes the team because he's so damn talented, and because he had such a hot streak with the nats before he got injured. Wolff makes the team because of his experience, his good play in the '02 WC, and because, even if he has lost a step due to age, injuries, and surgery, he still has decent speed, and I think Bruce will want to have available a speeding, slashing forward (although Johnson and Donovan can also both play this role).
Whether Bruce will take Twellman over Ching is a close call. I think Twellman gets the nod simply because, based on their recent form with the nats, Twellman has looked better. He broke his duck in the January friendlies, and he was unlucky to have had near misses or legitimate goals called back before he finally scored for the nats. Like Olsen, Twellman goes balls-out every game, which can only help. Twellman, if he makes the final roster, will probably be the last forward off the bench. And if Ching lights it up in MLS over the next three weeks and Twellman doesn't score at all, it's possible Ching gets the call over Twellman.
So that's one man's prediction as to who the final 23 on our roster will be. Now we just have to wait until May 3, when Bruce announces the actual roster.