Bruce Arena will have to wait a little longer than most to open up his presents. No, not his Christmas presents, but the presents that will await him when U.S. national team training camp opens next month.
The biggest difference for Arena going into next month's camp, as opposed to four years ago, was that in 2002 the U.S. team had the Gold Cup to prepare for and play in. Arena had a ready-built competition that gave him the ideal opportunity to place some inexperienced players into pressure matches.
Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, both 19 at the time, were able to thrive playing key roles for a team that went on to win the Gold Cup that year. There was also a young Pablo Mastroeni, providing the first glimpses of the player Arena would count on months later in South Korea.
With no tournament to provide the baptism by fire, Arena will simply have to run his latest crop of American-based players through a rigorous camp followed by some decent, though not extremely difficult friendlies against Canada, Norway and Japan.
What can we expect from this camp? Who could be this cycle's Beasley or Mastroeni? Who is conspicuous by their absence? Let's take a closer look at the positions.
Arena brought in four MLS goalies, which still might not prevent him from going with three overseas-based options (Kasey Keller, Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann). Kevin Hartman and Matt Reis both had solid seasons and deserve the courtesy of a look, but neither is likely to provide a stiff challenge to the aforementioned trio.
Brad Guzan showed enough toughness, athletic ability and work ethic to warrant a look, even if it is only to see just how far along he is in terms of development. And Jonny Walker? Arena hasn't forgotten how impressive Walker was during his brief stints with the national team two years ago, and he also knows that Walker has as much big-game experience as any goalkeeper in MLS (save for Tony Meola). Walker might have the best chance of the four to work his way into one of the three World Cup roster spots for goalkeepers.
Leading this pack is World Cup veteran Eddie Pope. The best defender in American soccer for the better part of a decade, Pope has endured injuries and poor club form the past two years, raising questions about whether he can still be counted on to anchor the U.S. backline. Arena hasn't lost confidence in Pope and the upcoming series of friendlies will go a long way in showing whether Pope is still capable of being a starter and defensive leader.
The trio of Los Angeles Galaxy defenders invited to camp certainly earned a look, but only Chris Albright should be considered a realistic candidate for a roster spot. Ugo Ihemelu has some scary potential, and could be a fixture by the 2010 World Cup, but he is still a bit raw. Todd Dunivant is solid and steady, but probably not ready for international competition.
Chad Marshall has long been regarded as a national team defender of the future, but the question is whether he is ready to play at a high level on a consistent basis. With the competition for central defender slots very intense, Marshall will need an exceptional winter to still be in the mix come March.
Heath Pearce has gone from relative unknown to hot commodity faster than you can say Oguchi. The Danish-based leftback has the makings of a more natural option at the position than converted midfielder Eddie Lewis, though Jonathan Spector's stock continues to rise.
That leaves Frankie Hejduk and ESPNsoccernet's own Jimmy Conrad. Hejduk. The growing number of fullback options at Arena's disposal is threatening Hejduk's potential place on a third World Cup team, but the Columbus defender is still a favorite of Arena's and just might have enough to earn a third straight World Cup trip. Conrad showed some strong flashes in last summer's Gold Cup but he is likely on the outside looking in among the deep stable of central defenders.
The most intriguing group in Arena's camp, the midfielders invited know full well that injuries could lead to an increased number of available spots next summer. Top options Claudio Reyna, John O'Brien and DaMarcus Beasley are all injury risks and as scary as the thought of missing that trio is (especially considering the powerhouse midfields awaiting the Americans next summer), Arena has some options for potential replacements.
Clint Dempsey, Pat Noonan, Steve Ralston and Santino Quaranta, have the best chances of earning the calls, but they each have their own question marks. Dempsey has yet to establish a role where he is best suited. Is he disciplined enough or a good enough ball winner to play defensive midfield? It remains to be seen. Ralston proved to be a steady option on the right flank but does he have enough upside for Arena's liking, or does he prefer Quaranta, a more dynamic, albeit still inconsistent option?
No player's presence will draw as much interest as Freddy Adu's. After a season overshadowed by feuding with D.C. coach Peter Nowak, Adu seemed unlikely to earn a look, but Arena surely saw the potential and observed that, despite modest statistics, Adu has grown as a player. Adu has passing skills, speed and a strong left foot, assets that could make him a truly dangerous option if he matures over the next six months. First, Adu must survive what will surely be a highly-competitive camp, where he will be wearing a bulls eye.
The latest knee injury suffered by Chris Armas has opened the door for Arena to consider new defensive midfield options and Carroll and Clark are among the new players being brought in. Carroll is the steadier of the two and has been solid in two starts for Arena, but Clark's athleticism and underrated shot make him an intriguing option. Veteran Ben Olsen is an old favorite of Arena's and could force his way into the mix with a strong winter.
Kyle Martino and Justin Mapp are both in camp but both have a long way to go before being seriously considered for Germany. Martino had a good showing against Panama but his lack of strength on the ball remains a concern. Mapp is as promising a young winger as there is in the U.S. system, but he is woefully inconsistent and defensively deficient.
Conspicuous by his absence is MetroStars midfielder Eddie Gaven, whose uninspired effort against Scotland last month might have sealed his World Cup fate.
Will Eddie be ready? That's the big question surrounding Arena's stable of forwards. Will Eddie Johnson recapture the form he enjoyed before foot injuries sidelined him for most of the second half of 2005? Without him, the number of proven options at forward become extremely thin after Brian McBride, Donovan and Josh Wolff. If healthy, Johnson will likely be given a steady diet of minutes to let Arena know just how much catching up he needs to do.
No forward's stock has risen as quickly as Chris Rolfe's. The Chicago striker's fearless approach, speed and willingness to take on defenders resulted in a memorable rookie season in MLS and an impressive effort as a substitute against Scotland. Rolfe plays at a frenetic, yet effective pace, that could make him a perfect late-game complement to Donovan and Beasley.
One player whose national team future could hinge on the next two months is Taylor Twellman. The reigning MLS MVP scored his first national team goal in his last appearance, a 2-0 win against Panama, but questions continue to abound about whether Twellman can be a steady scorer on the international level. There is little question that he is a solid finisher, but will his lack of pace limit the number of opportunities he is likely to see internationally? That speed might always be what separates Twellman from someone like Josh Wolff, who hasn't enjoyed as much success in MLS as Twellman, but who has firmly established himself as a national team fixture when healthy.
One player who could fall into that category, but did not earn an invite to camp, is Galaxy forward Herculez Gomez. Unlike Twellman, Gomez possesses the speed to be dangerous, but he is still raw and his MLS Cup performance showed that his finishing might not be up to par yet. That said, he is sure to earn a look at some point after the camp, if he isn't a late addition.
Finally, there are the target forwards who aspire to serve as Brian McBride's apprentice. Brian Ching looked like a natural successor to McBride a year ago, before injuries took a heavy toll. Arena surely hasn't forgotten Ching's clutch performances in 2004, including goals in his first two World Cup qualifiers, so expect Ching to get a long look. Nate Jaqua is in camp but figures to be a long shot to have much of an impact.
What will Arena find at Home Depot Center next month? He isn't asking for much. Just a dozen or so players capable of playing on soccer's biggest stage. The talent in the player pool suggests Arena should be able to find what he needs. The only question is which players are ready to emerge the way Beasley and Mastroeni did in 2002?
Current Projected World Cup roster
G - Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann
D - Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Eddie Pope, Cory Gibbs, Gregg Berhalter, Jonathan Spector
M - Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Lewis, Pablo Mastroeni, John O'Brien, Bobby Convey, Steve Ralston, Clint Dempsey.
F - Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson, Josh Wolff, Brian Ching
Ives Galarcep covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com