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Saturday, January 21, 2012
L.A.'s center backs wing it for U.S.

By Scott French

Heath Pearce
Heath Pearce played 72 minutes on defense for the U.S. Saturday, though he was tough on himself afterward.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A.J. DeLaGarza called it “special,” and if he could have done more -- and he believes he could have -- all in all his first experience in the international game was a keeper.

Heath Pearce has a real history with the U.S. national team, and if Saturday night's friendly against Venezuela was his first real step toward contending for a role in Brazil a couple of years down the line, that's fine -- even if it's not the point.

The local clubs' center backs got the call on the flanks in the 1-0 triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium, and the judgment on both was pretty good, could be better, and we'll see what's next, maybe Wednesday at Panama.

DeLaGarza, whose versatility has seen him man all four backline positions with the Galaxy, was active at right back, his natural position and the place L.A. would love to see him, although Omar Gonzalez's knee injury might have ended those plans.

Pearce, a veteran left back who was on the preliminary roster for the Yanks' 2010 World Cup team, has been Chivas USA's backline anchor since joining the club just before last season began, but he was back in his customary position against Venezuela.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, looking to build a depth chart at every spot on the field, was pleased with what he saw, even if DeLaGarza and Pearce were not so enamored.

“You're just curious to work with them and see them every day in training, and you can see a lot in training because we play high-intense scrimmages and a high pace,” Klinsmann said. “The way both kind of integrated themselves in this kind of system was wonderful. All of [the players]. They understand after 12 days in the process what we want to see from them, what we're asking.

“A.J. is a player who can play wide like he did tonight, or he can even play inside. Heath is the same type of player, but they understand their roles. We want them to understand that and implement their kind of roles on the field, and both do that with no problems at all.”

DeLaGarza, 24, one of four U.S. players making their international debuts, was solid defensively but said he needs “to work on getting into the attack a little more, and a little bit more quality when I'm there, as well.” He was capable going forward but didn't always connect when he did and acknowledged “I just got to be smarter when I go.”

“That comes with experience,” he said, “and that comes with playing the position over and over again, and right now I haven't been doing that.”

Gonzalez's knee injury, which will keep him on the sideline at least seven months, will hinder DeLaGarza's opportunity to get more time on the right. He's just too valuable in the middle.

“Whatever they play on their club team, that's up to their coaches,” Klinsmann said when asked if he'd prefer DeLaGarza and Pearce played as outside backs in Major League Soccer. “I've got to respect it. It's good to know they can play both [positions].”

Pearce, 27, had made 33 previous international appearances dating to 2005 and nearly went to South Africa two years ago, losing out to former Chivas USA captain Jonathan Bornstein for the backup job at left back. He has played just once for the U.S. since then, although he was on the 18-man game roster for Klinsmann's first game in charge, last August against Mexico, and had to withdraw from the September friendlies after sustaining a hamstring strain with the Goats.

“Just being back in the mix, being with the guys and being able to get a result today, that's important right now ...,” said Pearce, who was solid defensively but not particularly involved in the attack. “I wasn't unhappy [with my performance], but I'm my toughest critic, so I don't think it was particularly my best game, but I think we did what we needed to do to win, and it came together at the end [with Ricardo Clark's 97th-minute goal]. Better late than never, I suppose.”

Pearce, who exited in the 72nd minute, said he's not thinking about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil -- “I'm more focused on the day-to-day stuff and believing in my ability and first and foremost getting results as a team and hopefully being able to shine through all of that” -- but that being there, or in the running for a job, is in the back of his mind.

“It's not really at the forefront [of my mind] or anything,” he said. “Just taking it one game at a time and hoping to stay in the mix.”

January camps are designed to gauge players outside the core group, and some go on to bigger things. Six players in the January 2004 camp made the 2006 World Cup roster. Six in the January 2008 camp made the 2010 roster. Several from this roster -- Irvine-bred New England midfielder Benny Feilhaber, Houston center back Geoff Cameron, FC Dallas winger Brek Shea and young Sporting Kansas City forward Teal Bunbury foremost -- have a real shot.

What about DeLaGarza and Pearce? Depends on their next steps.

“For a national team coach, you go with your first XI, you have your starters, and then you build depth within that squad,” Klinsmann said. “If you're going to have these types of players, that are coming after and pushing up [within the pool], you're in a good situation.”

Pearce's road is clearer. His experience is a plus, and left back has long been a problem position for the U.S. -- one reason Galaxy left back Todd Dunivant's exclusion from this camp was so surprising. FC Nuremberg's Timmy Chandler at this point is the frontrunner for the starting spot on the left in Brazil, but the depth behind him isn't good.

The U.S. is much stronger on the right, where veteran Steve Cherundolo, from Hannover 96, remains the top candidate and Aston Villa youngster Eric Lichaj his understudy. Lichaj also can play on the left, and FC Dallas' Zach Loyd, who came on for Pearce, is a rising entity.

Wherever it leads, DeLaGarza always will have this game. It was a thrill, he said, just to be on the field.

“It was exciting,” he said. “Nerve-racking, obviously. Putting on the jersey's pretty special, so there was a little bit of butterflies ... until my first touch. You always get that first touch and your butterflies go away. You're just focused.

“Even in L.A., I'm nervous every single game until you get that first touch in.”