Gaven having a ball in 2004
Eddie Gaven knew there was at least a chance.
His MetroStars teammate Johny Walker had informed him that he was a part of the preliminary pool of players from which the U.S. National Team's 18-man roster would be selected for the July 11 friendly against Poland at Chicago's Soldier Field.
But the 17-year-old midfielder refused to get excited about anything until he knew for sure. Being named to the pool, which could range from anywhere between 22 and 30 players, and getting your first call-up to the National Team are two different things entirely, and calls for completely different emotions.
That's why Gaven felt such elation when he saw that magical e-mail sitting in his e-mail box last Wednesday morning informing him of the good news.
"When I saw the note saying I was getting called into camp, I was really excited," said Gaven on Wednesday afternoon from his hotel room in Chicago where the National Team has been training since Monday. "I called my dad, my brother and everyone. It was cool."
Cool as it may be for a second-year professional who just got his driver's license earlier this year, the call-up was well-deserved. Gaven has had a strong year from the start for the Metros, but lately he's been on fire, playing as well as any midfielder in Major League Soccer. In his last four games, he's scored four goals and registered an assist, which now gives him 13 points (four goals, five assists) that is good enough for ninth among all scorers in MLS.
While his goal and assist statistics might be nice, it's his overall command of the game and presence in the midfield that has caught the attention of National Team manager Bruce Arena.
After a rookie season that saw him show flashes of greatness off the bench while splitting time between the MetroStars and the Under-17 National Team in Bradenton, Fla., Gaven's sophomore campaign has shown a player who is unafraid to take defenders on or to try creative moves in tight space.
The National Team's all-time leading goal scorer Eric Wynalda might have said it best last week when he wrote the following in his weekly column for MLSnet.com:
"Very simply put, he can play."
And that's why Arena chose him. Because he can play.
That's what the U.S. manager is after these days, whether they are 17 or 37 years old. It was the same case in 2002 when he put Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley on the World Cup roster when they were 20 and 19 years old, respectively.
Age wasn't a gimmick then, and it surely isn't one now. That's all the more reason why Gaven plans on making the most of this opportunity and is soaking everything up in the process.
"It's already been a lot of fun," said Gaven, who played 30 minutes as one of the two attacking midfielders in the National Team's 0-0 tie with the Chicago Fire on Wednesday. "Just to share the field with the best players in the country is an honor, really. Training here the last few days has shown me exactly why so many of these players have been on the team for so long. They're all very good, and work hard every time they are out there."
Even though he is a mere 17 years old, Gaven knows many of the U.S. players from his days with the U-17, U-20 and U-23 National Teams.
Several of the guys he has played against or trained with at one time during his time in Residency with the 17s, since many MLS teams have spent time down in Bradenton during their spring training each year. But there are always new faces to meet - players that he's only watched on TV over the years or has never spoken to.
"This was the first time I got to meet Steve Cherundolo," he said of the right back who plays in the German Bundesliga for Hannover 96. "Same with Zach Thornton. I know of all these guys, but some of them I've just never been around or talked to."
They all know of him, too. In a season that has been dominated by the hype of 15-year-old Freddy Adu, Gaven's name has been the one that continually comes up when discussing the top young players in the league and future National Team stars.
Brian McBride, for one, made a point of seeking out Gaven on Monday when the team convened in the Windy City.
"He was the first one to come up to me and say hi," said the Hamilton, N.J., native. "He said that he's seen me play this year. He basically told me the same thing that coach told me, and that's to go out and play my game without being shy -- I am kind of a shy guy -- and to have fun out here.
"That stuff really helps me. To have one of the guys who has been on this team for the last 6 or 7 years say that makes it a lot easier for me."
What also has made it easier for Gaven to make this transition is the fact that he's done well in the same league where most of the National Team players make a living. That thought popped into his head most recently in June while watching the U.S. take on Grenada in a two-game, home-and-home series to kick off World Cup qualifying.
"A lot of the guys who played in those two games, and did well, do play in MLS just like me," he said. "So, yeah, if they play in the same league as me, then maybe I have a chance to be on that team, too."
Gaven is not expected to start against Poland, but he's likely to see time off the bench in the second half. If he does get into the match, he'll be the fourth youngest American player to ever earn a cap with the National Team.
At 17 years, 260 days old, he'll be behind the immortal Mike Slivinski (16 years, 318 days old) and Mark Jonas (16 years, 332 days old) who made their first and last appearances in a friendly against Jamaica on September 14, 1991, as well as Convey, who was 17 years, 151 days old when Arena inserted him as a late-game substitute into a friendly against Mexico on October 25, 2000.
What will help Gaven is that Arena plays a similar system that Bob Bradley employs with the MetroStars by having two attacking midfielders and two defensive midfielders while giving the outside backs room to join the attack in the open space created on the flanks.
What will also help Gaven going forward is that the pool is filled with players whose professional clubs are in Europe, which means that they won't always be available for World Cup qualifiers or for training camps over the next two years in the run up to the 2006 World Cup.
There are six CONCACAF semifinal round qualifying matches this fall, alone, starting on August 18 in an away match against Jamaica and ending on November 17 against the Jamaicans in Columbus.
American field players such as Cherundolo, McBride (Fulham), Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham), Conor Casey (FSV Mainz), Eddie Lewis (Preston North End), Clint Mathis (Hannover 96), John O'Brien (Ajax), Claudio Reyna (Manchester City), Tony Sanneh (F.C. Nurnberg) and Greg Vanney (F.C. Bastia) won't be made available for each of these matches, that's for sure.
In other words, there will be opportunities for young MLS stars who are in form to make their mark.
"Guys might not be released from their teams overseas or there might be injuries, so I might get a chance to come back in after this camp to help this team qualify for the World Cup," he said. "So I'm just going to go out and work my hardest, and take everyone's advice, and that is to play the game that I know how to play and have fun with it."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.