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U.S. Team Finally at Full Strength, but Holes Remain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. Coach Steve Sampson lifted the veil of secrecy from his team’s World Cup preparations long enough to say Monday all of his players are finally fit, so injuries won’t be a factor when he chooses his lineup for the opener against Germany next Monday at Parc des Princes in Paris.

Sampson said he has an idea of who will start but two or three spots remain undetermined. The performances of several players in a scrimmage against the French Second Division team FC Gueugnon today will go a long way toward filling in those blanks.

“There are some questions I have yet to answer, and this will help tremendously,” Sampson said of the scrimmage, which will be closed to media and spectators. “I hope to give everyone at least 45 minutes. For some players it’s just a matter of staying in match shape.”

One key question was answered when Sampson said striker Eric Wynalda, whose preparation was slowed by surgery on his right knee, has nearly regained his old form and is certain to play against Germany.

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Sampson hasn’t decided how long Wynalda will play or whether Wynalda might even be more effective coming off the bench. In either case, it’s good news for a team that has been starving for goals. The U.S. scored only twice in its last three warmup games and has emphasized finishing skills in its workouts here at nearby Trevoux.

“I was pleased with Eric today. His explosiveness is coming back. That first step you didn’t see against Kuwait is there,” Sampson said, referring to Wynalda’s sluggishness in his return May 24 at Portland, Ore. “He’s very close. I wouldn’t hesitate starting him. Now, it’s just a matter of how long he can go.”

Wynalda, the U.S. team’s all-time leading scorer with 32 goals in 100 international appearances, is ready.

“I did some shooting [Monday] and it feels normal. I haven’t felt this good in two years,” he said. “Maybe this was a blessing in disguise. It gave me the time I needed to get over some nagging things and to go into the weight room and work on strengthening some muscles in my knee and groin.”

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Frankie Hejduk might have the most riding on today’s scrimmage. Hejduk, a speedy and industrious midfielder with strong offensive instincts, injured a hamstring May 6 and returned to full practices only last Saturday.

“Tonight’s game will determine a lot in [Hejduk’s] regard. He’s given a very good effort but he’s still not 90-minute-match fit,” Sampson said. “Hopefully, between now and Monday he can regain most of that.”

Said Hejduk: “I’m ready 100%. I just need to get my fitness back and my touch on the ball back within the next couple of days.”

The U.S. team arrived here last Saturday, but players are antsy. They will remain at the elegant but isolated Chateau de Pizay, about 30 miles north of Lyon in the heart of Beaujolais wine country, until they depart for Paris Saturday. They will return here June 16-22.

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“We’re not here to sightsee. We’re making our own entertainment,” defender Alexi Lalas said. “Obviously, we’re out in the sticks, but it’s a beautiful place. It’s conducive to working.”

Sampson said the lack of distractions is helping the bond. “They’re very focused,” he said.

He also said being one of the last two teams to play a first-round match will be an advantage because he will be able to tell how stringently referees are enforcing the new rules against tackling from behind.


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