Coaches call these games "character builders" or "gut checks," as they often provide a glimpse of a team’s collective mettle. True, the England match lacked any real implications for the U.S. as a team. But individually, many players knew the much-anticipated friendly offered them an important chance to impress their manager. One player who rose to the occasion was forward Josh Wolff, who turned in 90 minutes of up-tempo soccer.
His performance made an impact on Manager Bruce Arena who, following the match, referred to Wolff as "a handful" for the England defenders, adding, "He's a guy we've got to keep in consideration."
Undoubtedly, Wolff’s tenacity and creativity factored into Arena’s assessment. In the first half, he drew a foul to set up Landon Donovan’s free kick which caromed off the right post. Just 17 minutes later, Wolff directed a header towards Donovan which the Galaxy midfielder steered just inches wide of the left post.
Despite the praise from his manager, however, Wolff stays grounded, knowing there are still areas where he can improve his game. He’d specifically like to rediscover his goal-scoring touch of 2002, in which he notched three international tallies, a career best.
"I was pretty happy with [my performance today]," Wolff said after the match. "But then again, I’d like to score some goals. That’s what you’re supposed to do."
Converting scoring chances proved particularly troubling for the Americans against England.
"If you look at the numbers, we probably had the better of the opportunities," said Wolff. "We just didn’t take care of it in the final third [of the field]."
Nonetheless, Wolff remains confident in his ability to score and contribute to the U.S. side. When he’s fit, he represents a potent offensive weapon for Arena, and performances like Saturday’s should go a long way in cementing his place on the roster.
"As long as I’ve been healthy the last five years, I’ve fit in with the national team," explained Wolff. "That doesn’t mean you’re playing every day, but when you get your chances, you have to show well and show that you belong."
Against England, Wolff staked his claim as a player who more than belongs on the U.S. squad. A rash of serious injuries in recent years, including a torn ACL in 2003, makes Wolff’s achievements all the more impressive. He now approaches each contest with a renewed appreciation for the game, and serves as a constant reminder for his teammates to leave everything on the field.
"They can come at any time," said Wolff, recalling his string of injuries. "So be grateful and try to make the most of your opportunities, because in a flash it could be put on hold."
It’s a harsh reality that Wolff hopes he has finally put behind him. As qualifying intensifies throughout the summer and the World Cup looms larger on the horizon, Arena will count on a healthy Wolff to produce. Wolff is convinced he and his fellow forwards can get the job done.
"The depth is coming," said Wolff. "Obviously, domestically, our forwards have been pretty strong. It’s a work in progress, and you want to put yourself in a good spot for ’06."
With some timely finishes over the weekend, the U.S. can do just that, distancing themselves from the rest of their qualifying group. Should Wolff deliver a goal or two of his own, he too could separate himself from a talented pool of U.S. forwards.