The full U.S. national team finally came together for the first time in advance of their trip to Trinidad & Tobago this week, as the European-based contingent met up with the domestic-based players for a training session Sunday in Miami before heading off to the twin-island republic.
U.S. manager Bruce Arena, who saw his preparation time reduced by a labor dispute before the national team players union and U.S. Soccer, had all but goalkeeper Kasey Keller of the 23-man group under his direction for the opening qualifier of the final round. "I would have liked to have had the players for more time, but we did what we could," Arena said.
Arena has indicated that MLS players have been behind in their fitness level, which wasn't helped by the delay in their joining the national team camp barely two weeks before the trip to the Caribbean.
"Clearly we were behind the eight ball a little bit," Arena said. "We've worked hard to move our domestic players forward. We won't make any excuses. We're going to Trinidad to get a result."
Said Colorado Rapids defender Pablo Mastroeni: "For us, it's important to get off on the right foot. A lot of the MLS players are still in preseason and the others have had to come from Europe."
Arena has included 10 European-based players among his squad, including two who made offseason moves overseas, defender Cory Gibbs and midfielder Landon Donovan.
Although his flight arrived late from Germany, Donovan was able to hook up with his teammates in south Florida. For Donovan, it's his first appearance with the U.S. national team since his move back to Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga from the San Jose Earthquakes.
"In Germany, the difference after the 2002 World Cup is that the U.S. player is more respected now," Donovan said. "What's important is to qualify. I would put the same on finishing first in the tournament."
In addition, there will be some familiar faces on the other side of the ball in Port-of-Spain. Former Columbus Crew forward Stern John and Cornell Glen, newly acquired by FC Dallas, are expected to the starting strike pair for Bertille St. Clair's side, with Kansas City Wizards draftee Scott Sealy likely to come off the substitutes' bench.
"They are an athletic team. They've got a minimum of two good forwards in Stern John and Cornell Glen. I think Dwight Yorke will be in the mix somewhere. Obviously, they have an experienced goalkeeper in Shaka Hislop," said Arena. "Physically they are dominating in the back with defenders like Marvin Andrews. They are playing at home, have been together for two months and have played six or eight games to prepare so I think they're going to be a handful."
Keyvan Antonio Heydari is an international journalist and television commentator located in Miami.