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Oct 11, 2005

Improbable journeys

So what do you do when you've locked up World Cup qualification, and you're playing a team desperate for points in a place where you've never won? If you're U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena, you bring in a bunch of players who are equally desperate to prove they belong on the final roster for next summer's footy-fest in Germany.

I say desperate because Arena's roster is rife with players for whom a national team call-up was unthinkable as recently as a few months ago, and there isn't much time left to make an impression. But which player ventured deepest into the soccer wilderness before being called in by the U.S. coach?

Kyle Martino? Some would argue that playing in Columbus this season definitely qualifies as soccer purgatory, but the talented midfielder appeared with the national team as recently as last March.

Danny Califf? His return from injury back into the national team fold is the stuff of storybooks, but the guy does have 12 caps. His recall seemed to be only a matter of time.

No, the two players who have been on the most Homeric of journeys would be Califf's San Jose teammates, Wade Barrett and Ricardo Clark.

Back in late 2002, Barrett was at the top of his game, having earned MLS Best XI honors that previous season. The former MLS All-Star's play was noticed by Arena as well, and Barrett earned his lone cap in a friendly against El Salvador in November of that year.

At that point, Barrett embarked on a sojourn to Europe titled, "How To Sidetrack My Career." To this day, the Virginia Beach, Va., native insists that his decision to head overseas was as much about different life experiences as it was about soccer. Given Barrett's penchant for shaved heads and sideburns, there's no reason to doubt him, but the outcome proved to be a case study in how a stint in Europe doesn't always pan out. Barrett struggled with injury and playing time during his two years overseas. Following a loan spell with Norwegian team Fredrikstad, the Danish side owning his contract, AGF Aarhus, made it clear he was no longer in their plans.

So back in February, Barrett opted to return to his old club in San Jose. Given the mass player exodus taking place at the time, this made Barrett something of a novelty. But return he did, and so impressed was head coach Dominic Kinnear with Barrett's fitness level and attitude, that he named him captain in preseason.

A funny thing happened upon Barrett's return to soccer civilization, however. His initial appearances weren't all that impressive. While his defending and ability to get forward appeared as good as ever, his distribution and tendency to get caught in possession seemed to put him miles away from a return to the international stage.

But Barrett has shown a steady improvement over the summer, having smoothed over the rough spots in his game. And with both outside back positions showing the least amount of depth heading into next summer, Barrett may yet contend for the honor of providing cover for presumptive left back Eddie Lewis.

While Clark doesn't have a European stint on his resume, the path he navigated contained its own unique set of obstacles. The Furman University product had long been involved with various youth national team programs, and a stellar 2003 season with the MetroStars resulted in him being named a finalist for Rookie of the Year. It seemed a matter of when, not if, the Jonesboro, Ga., native would break into the full national team.

But an uneven sophomore season hampered by injury saw Clark's stock diminish to the point where he became expendable, and the MetroStars, in a trade they may rue for years, shipped Clark out west.

Like Barrett, Clark's first months with the Quakes were wildly inconsistent. Teamed with rookie Danny O'Rourke in the center midfield, Clark was handed the keys to the San Jose attack. But the former collegiate All-American appeared overwhelmed by his offensive duties, and the Quakes' attack sputtered. When Kinnear turned to Dwayne De Rosario to ignite the San Jose offense, Clark took the fall, taking a spot on the bench.

Given De Rosario's near-immediate success as an attacking midfielder, there was little reason to think that Clark's fortunes would change anytime soon. But a season-ending injury to nominal right back Craig Waibel gave Clark an opportunity to shoe-horn his way back into the lineup, and when O'Rourke hit the rookie well in late May, Clark's partnership with De Rosario was formed.

The more defensive-minded Clark proved to be the perfect foil for the wild-card Canadian. With his greyhound-like running ability, Clark covered acres of space, and provided plenty of steel to the San Jose midfield. Clark even found time to pick his spots and join the attack. His three goals, and sparkling solo runs are testament to his ability to contribute to the offense.

As convoluted as each player's path to an international call-up has been, their respective futures with the U.S. team are quite different. For Barrett, 29, it appears as though this is his last shot to make a World Cup roster. You don't see too many 33-year-old outside backs these days at the international level, and there are bound to be some new prospects emerging by the time 2010 rolls around.

Clark's prospects appear brighter. At age 22, with his spot in the San Jose lineup secure, there's every reason to think that the Quakes' midfielder will see his game improve, and there's a chance Clark could become a mainstay for years to come.

Near term, both players are long shots to make Arena's final squad. But an inclusion in the lineup against Costa Rica this weekend, or Panama next Wednesday would seem to be the perfect time to give both players a go. Then we'll really see how much their desperate journeys have paid off.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com