Of the 23 U.S. national soccer team players mucking about on George Washington University's soggy Mount Vernon campus field this week, only a handful were recognizable to the untrained eye. There were World Cup holdovers Clint Mathis (minus the Mohawk haircut), DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and Pablo Mastroeni and a pair of D.C. United players, Ben Olsen and Nick Rimando.
But for the most part, the group called in for Sunday's friendly against El Salvador at RFK Stadium -- the Americans' first international match since their World Cup heroics last summer -- is largely anonymous. Ten have never made a U.S. appearance and eight others have had six or fewer games. Twelve players have yet to reach their 25th birthday.
"It's enjoyable to get to know a whole new group of players," Coach Bruce Arena said. "It's all part of the process. It isn't much different than what we did in November 1998. These players have good futures in the game and we want to see where they stand. The most important aspect here for us is the opportunity to get them a game, get them bloodied a little bit."
Many of the players who helped the United States advance to the World Cup quarterfinals five months ago will remain in the player pool leading up to qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. But with his European-based professionals in the middle of their seasons, several Major League Soccer veterans in need of rest and others past their prime for '06 consideration, Arena has turned to a new generation, all from MLS teams, for Sunday's match.
There is MLS scoring champion Taylor Twellman, a 22-year-old striker from the University of Maryland who likely will make his U.S. debut in a starting role Sunday; Rimando, Tim Howard and Adin Brown, representing the next wave of outstanding U.S. goalkeepers; and playmaker Kyle Martino, the MLS rookie of the year with Columbus after playing three years at the University of Virginia.
Arena's greatest concern is defense, and this week he has looked at several prospects, including MLS defender of the year Carlos Bocanegra, 23.
"There's a lot to learn here," Martino, 21, said. "It's a great step, but it's just a first step. You've got to continue on, develop and produce. Hopefully I can use this first opportunity as a chance to show Bruce that I'm serious about wanting to be a part of this team for the next World Cup."
Beasley is only 20, but with 15 U.S. appearances and three goals in international play, he seems like a grizzled veteran in this group. "People are going to see a lot of these players over the next year," said Beasley, who hopes to play Sunday before having minor knee surgery next week. "I don't think we'll see some of the old guys for quite a while."
As for Arena, his contract expires in about six weeks and although sources said last month that he has agreed in principle to a new four-year deal, the U.S. Soccer Federation has yet to make an official announcement.
Asked about the delay, Arena joked: "I haven't had enough talks with the Irish federation yet," referring to Ireland's head coaching vacancy. (No, he isn't a candidate.) "I don't know, maybe I should get in the unemployment line."
Nonetheless, Arena has been actively planning the national team's immediate future -- a game in January, one or two in February (Argentina might be an opponent) and more in the spring before two major tournaments: the FIFA Confederations Cup in France and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the United States. And, of course, he has undertaken a search for young blood.
"What's clear [after this week's training sessions] is there isn't anyone here who doesn't belong here, which is good," he said. "It's a good group of players. We'll see more as the week goes on, but the bottom line over the next year is how these guys perform in games. That's the challenge."
U.S. Notes: D.C. United's Jaime Moreno, who is from Bolivia, has been working out with the American squad. . . .
Two recently departed United staff members, assistant coach Curt Onalfo and trainer Rick Guter, are working with the U.S. team this week.