MLS stars hope to be fit vs. Trinidad
When the U.S. lines up to face Trinidad & Tobago on Wednesday afternoon, the starting unit will likely only feature three MLS players.
It's one thing to be out-of-season, which is the case for the 13 MLS players here among the 23 men that Bruce Arena brought with him to the West Indies. But it's an entirely different situation altogether for those who haven't played in a competitive match since late October or early November based on the fact that the labor situation with the U.S. Soccer Federation prevented Arena from having a training camp in December or January, not to mention any friendlies as tune-up matches.
"We can't make up for lost time," said Arena. "Certainly, two weeks of preparation for our domestic players to play an international qualifying game is certainly not enough, but we can't make any excuses. That's the card that we've been dealt, so we're going to move on and try and win on Wednesday."
That being the case, it appears that only Eddie Johnson (FC Dallas), Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids) and Eddie Pope (Real Salt Lake) will start for the Americans. The favorites to see time off the bench from MLS are striker Josh Wolff (Kansas City Wizards), Clint Mathis (Real Salt Lake), Frankie Hejduk (Columbus Crew) and perhaps Ben Olsen (D.C. United), who parlayed a strong campaign for the 2004 MLS Cup champions as a central midfielder into another stint with the national team.
Of the group of MLS players in camp, most appear to be in their usual shape. In other words, someone like Hejduk could still probably play 90-plus minutes in his sleep, as per usual, due to his exceptional fitness level, while others like Mathis aren't in the type of shape it takes to do that, whether they are in season or not.
Either way, the collective fitness level for such a high-energy type of match in heat that is expected to be in the mid-90s range is a concern, and one that, to a man, several MLS players on the side admit isn't their strength right now.
"A lot of us were given a running program, so most of us came into camp in pretty decent shape, and jumped on it from the get-go," said Pope, mentioning the camp that was held at The Home Depot Center that featured all MLS players and one USL player (Clyde Simms from the Richmond Kickers) before the team moved to Miami last weekend. "Are we as good as we want to be or should be? No. But that's why we have the European players here. Because they're ready to go. That's the one plus we have.
"We have a pretty big group of guys in Europe. The dispute didn't affect them. They were in season."
Taylor Twellman admitted that he is not at 100 percent yet as far as his fitness level, but that he is much further along at this point in the winter than he ever has been since joining the New England Revolution in 2002.
"This year I've taken more pride in my preseason fitness," said Twellman, whose father, Tim, received his only cap with the U.S. national team in a 2-1 victory down here on March 21, 1982. "I realized that I have to get stronger to handle the physicality of this league and to prevent injuries, so I hired a personal trainer."
Twellman, who looks visibly stronger since he was last seen playing in that epic Eastern Conference Final against D.C. United that went to penalty kicks last November, has increased his lifting as well as his flexibility through pilates. For the Revolution striker, who has been in and out of the national team picture for the past two years due to various injuries, it's all about making the roster for Wednesday's match.
"I'm obviously happy to be here," said the 24-year-old striker. "But at the end of the day, you want to be a part of the 18. That's my goal as of right now. I want to be a part of the qualifying process as best as I can. I feel like I can help."
Arena said he's set on about 14 or so of the players as far as their status for Wednesday. All 23 players that were brought to Trinidad are healthy and available to Arena. The final roster spots will be determined on Tuesday night, as five players won't be available to play though they'll be dressed and sitting on the bench. Those sitting will likely be Joe Cannon (Colorado), Clint Dempsey (New England), Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City), Chris Albright (Los Angeles) and then either Brian Ching (San Jose) or Twellman. Fitness-level will be a factor with this decision, as well, since Arena isn't sure what to expect from the MLS players.
"We're going to find out tomorrow," said Arena, during the team's first and only training session on the island at Queen's Park Oval on a scorcher of a Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, it's not going to be perfect. It's the card we've been dealt, and we'll deal with it."
While Arena downplayed the ongoing Carnival, saying that it wasn't as "hectic" as he thought it was going to be and that the team got a good night sleep on Monday evening, it's been an atmosphere that has been hard to ignore. In the team hotel, dozens of dressed -- or, shall we say, undressed -- revelers have been passing through the lobby at all hours of the day. A local calypso band was also still playing outdoors after midnight upon the team's arrival, which was loud enough to literally shake the rooms facing the pool area.
The passion seen amongst the locals will surely spill over to Wednesday's match as local officials are saying that as many as 25,000 fans could fill the cricket grounds. Even if that many pack into the Oval, the stands are split into six different grandstands (three are triple-deckers and three are double-deck) with open-air in between, and their distance from the field is farther away than any MLS stadium. In between the field -- approximately 80 yards wide, featuring a hump in the middle and several areas of orange-colored dead grass -- and the stands is a chain-link fence and a velodrome, making the stadium hardly an intimate venue.
"I'm sure they'll feel like its anybody's game," said Pope. "I'm sure it (the atmosphere) is going to be electric. It's at the end of Carnival, so they'll have a lot of energy."
Hopefully, for the U.S. side, the MLS players will have a lot of energy, as well.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.