MIAMI, Feb. 6 -- The U.S. national soccer team's pursuit of a 2006 World Cup berth has been a long, slow process that won't end for another nine months. But because of a labor dispute, fitness concerns and travel challenges, the Americans are suddenly rushing to prepare themselves for the final stage of qualifying, which will begin Wednesday at Trinidad and Tobago.
Coach Bruce Arena and 13 players arrived here late Saturday night following an abbreviated training camp in California. Ten European-based players began trickling into the team's bayside hotel after most played in league matches less than 24 hours earlier.
"We have the next 72 hours to make this collection of individuals into a team," Coach Bruce Arena says of Wednesday's qualifier.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
_____World Cup Qualifier_____
Who: United States at Trinidad and Tobago.
When: Wednesday, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Queen's Park Oval, Port of Spain.
A light practice was held Sunday afternoon, another was scheduled for Monday morning, and by that afternoon everyone would be climbing aboard a charter for the three-hour flight to the Caribbean.
"We have the next 72 hours to make this collection of individuals into a team," Arena said Sunday morning. "That's always a challenge, and it's much more difficult when you factor in the events of the last couple of months with us not having the ability to train properly and have games."
After breezing through the preliminary rounds last year, the weeks leading up to this 10-game final round have been hectic and contentious.
Financial differences between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the national team players' association resulted in the cancellation of a week-long training camp in December and a three-week delay to the start of the extended January camp. Plans for much-needed international exhibitions were scrapped, leaving only scrimmages against a Swedish club and UCLA. (In contrast, Trinidad and Tobago prepared by playing two games against Azerbaijan and three with Haiti.)
Caught in the middle of the quarrel, Arena was forced to call in two dozen minor league players to replace the veterans, who have been playing without a collective bargaining agreement for more than two years. When a tentative deal was reached on Jan. 21 -- the sides will continue to negotiate without the fear of a lockout or strike -- MLS players who have been dormant for several months reported to Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
"In general, they did not come into camp in good shape," Arena said. "However, over the last two weeks, they've worked real hard and made progress. Has that been enough? That remains to be seen. We haven't been in a game. You can run around in a circle as much as you want, but the real way to get into condition to play in games is to play in games. So we've lost that. Therefore, we will be heavily reliant on our European players.
"Obviously, our MLS players are going to play a role in this game. We'll wait and see. There's nothing we can do about the past. We're not going to use any of these events as an excuse."
Among the players invited to Trinidad was D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen, 27, whose U.S. career seemed over after years of ankle problems.
"It was kind of a crash course in fitness because we came in late and had to make up for lost time," Olsen said of the camp in California.
"The team did a good job of getting through it. Bruce and the coaching staff made it evident that there was a sense of urgency. It wasn't like they were sneaking it by us. It was intense, it was tough, but it was good."
The USSF has declined to announce the roster, but in addition to Olsen, the MLS contingent comprises former United players Eddie Pope (Salt Lake City) and Chris Albright (Los Angeles), rookie of the year Clint Dempsey (New England), former Maryland Terrapin Taylor Twellman (New England), all-star defender Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City), rising star Eddie Johnson (Dallas), goalie of the year Joe Cannon (Colorado) and national team veterans Josh Wolff (Kansas City), Frankie Hejduk (Columbus), Clint Mathis (Salt Lake City), Brian Ching (San Jose) and Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado).
From Europe came goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann; defenders Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Cory Gibbs and Gregg Berhalter; midfielders Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Lewis; and forward Brian McBride.
Team captain Claudio Reyna, who plays in England, remains sidelined because of a leg injury and Kansas City midfielder Kerry Zavagnin is unavailable while trying out with English club Coventry.
Said Arena of Olsen: "He started slowly, but the second week [of training camp] was a really good week for him and he showed he's still a good player. He's a different player than before -- he's more experienced, he has changed his game because of the injuries and he can play in a bunch of spots. Right now we're somewhat limited in the [deep midfield] position, so Ben could help us."