For the Americans, A Crisp Turnaround

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 27, 2006

CLEVELAND, May 26 -- The week began with another maddening injury to the team captain and, perhaps of greater concern, a dreary performance against an unimposing opponent in the squad's first pre-World Cup test. The trouble continued two days later when another defender was dropped from the roster with a knee ailment.

So when the U.S. national team arrived at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Friday night to face Venezuela, it carried with it three pressing needs: a lively effort, 90 injury-free minutes and a victory.

Bolstered by goals from Brian Ching and Clint Dempsey, the Americans showed vast overall improvement and enjoyed a painless evening to register a 2-0 victory before 29,745 spectators in their penultimate tuneup before heading to Germany next week.

"There was certainly an urgency to get a result, and more importantly, just to play well, play with some energy, play with some passion," veteran forward Josh Wolff said.

The only blemish was defender Carlos Bocanegra's late red card after he collected his second yellow -- the 10th of the match.

"Tonight from the start, we were very aggressive in trying to create chances," Coach Bruce Arena said. "That was a real positive."

Only two players who started in Tuesday's troubling 1-0 loss to Morocco were in the lineup Friday, although that was by design, not a reaction to the previous match, because the team has to turn around and play Sunday night against Latvia in East Hartford, Conn.

It was an opportunity for Tim Howard to get a start ahead of No. 1 goalkeeper Kasey Keller and role players such as Jimmy Conrad, Chris Albright and D.C. United's Ben Olsen to gain much-needed international fine-tuning. It was a chance for Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Bobby Convey to make another bid for a starting job in the World Cup.

And it was an occasion for Ching, MLS's leading scorer, to prove his worth after claiming one of the final roster slots early this month.

"It felt good to get a goal and it definitely felt good to have a good team performance, especially after our loss on Tuesday," Ching said. "Hopefully this will put us on a roll and we'll come out and show well against Latvia."

Unlike Tuesday, the Americans were quick with the ball and, just as important, quick with their decision-making. Convey was menacing on the left wing and Ching and Johnson were an imposing presence on the front line.

After several dangerous flurries, Convey and Ching got together to break the scoreless tie. Ching had just squandered an open opportunity at the top of the box when Convey set him up in the 36th minute with a bending cross. Ching met the ball with a leaping, right-footed volley from five yards for his fourth goal in 19 international appearances.

Ching nearly struck again nine minutes into the second half, again with a volley from close range at the near post off Albright's cross.

"He worked for 90 minutes, did a good job holding the ball, drew some fouls -- things that our forwards haven't been doing on a consistent basis," Arena said of Ching. "Once he scored the goal, he had a great game."

After Howard denied Venezuela's equalizing bid with a spectacular leaping save on Juan Arango's free kick, the Americans extended the lead in the 69th minute on an elegant sequence that ended with Landon Donovan, in a reserve role, leading Johnson deep into the box for a one-time cross that Dempsey finished with a six-yard diving header.

On the injury front, there were a couple scares, most notably Johnson receiving a blow to the back of the head challenging for a high ball in the first half. However, there no serious setbacks like in the Morocco game, when captain Claudio Reyna departed with a strained hamstring and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, defender Cory Gibbs suffered a knee injury that ended his World Cup hopes.

U.S. Notes: Defender Gregg Berhalter, called up Thursday to replace Gibbs, joined the team early Friday but was not included on the game-day roster. He might play Sunday. . . . Michael Bradley, a Netherlands-based midfielder who has been practicing informally with the U.S. squad, got his first international appearance when he entered for Olsen.

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