Assessing a new national team boss off his initial selections is a little like gauging a restaurant by pulling into the parking lot. There's plenty of chewing ahead before anyone can make up their mind.
Still, the initial pieces have fallen into place as interim U.S. men's coach Bob Bradley begins his (temporary?) days shepherding the U.S. national side.
Bradley made good on his promise to keep the focus on development Tuesday with the announcement of a 29-man group that leans heavily on international soccer pups. This boyish group counts Landon Donovan as its senior member -- in terms of caps, at least.
There were a few scattered little surprises, but no truly bizarre ones, as Bradley named an impressionable group for his initial camp. That in itself confirms a little something, although nothing shocking: that Bradley understands his work is all about development, and that he won't stray from that endeavor in some thinly veiled gambit to win insignificant matches and solidify his hold on the spot.
Other than Donovan and Pablo Mastroeni, hip-hop attacker Clint Dempsey is the most experienced member of this 29-man group.
This initial 29 gathers Jan. 4 at the Home Depot Center as Bradley wades into the big task of restoring collective confidence, creating depth and balance, and identifying the difference makers for important tasks ahead.
Bradley will then monitor his highly untested bunch (and reveal a little more about his early preferences) against Denmark on Jan. 20, then in a higher-profile match against bitter rival Mexico in February.
Bruce Arena similarly flung open the gates and summoned a gaggle of international soccer newbies on his earliest run-outs after a World Cup cycle. Aspiring lightweights Sasha Victorine, Bobby Convey, Dan Califf and Jeff Cunningham were in the mix as Arena opened play in January 2003, following the 2002 World Cup. So that part is nothing new.
Still, the relative youth of Bradley's assembly takes hold when you subtract the goalkeepers from the list. Then, we see that 20 of his 25 call-ups were born in the 80s. Ten players from the group were pulled from the uncapped file. A full 22 of them have five caps or fewer.
In the mild surprise department: Alecko Eskandarian seems a bit out of place among the group. The D.C. United striker has certainly shown talent and game-turning ability. But his most recent goal for United in MLS matches came on July 22 as he foundered in the season's final three months.
Brian Ching's exclusion may have caught some fans unaware. Ching opted out of the camp, choosing instead to rest a knee that continued to trouble him down the stretch of MLS play. Safe to say that Ching would have been included otherwise. If he didn't play himself into contention with goal-scoring bursts from the 2006 regular season, he certainly did with his late-game response in the MLS Cup final.
Bradley seemed to reward youngsters who had good years domestically, the likes of United goalkeeper Troy Perkins, league Rookie of the Year Jonathan Bornstein and FC Dallas 11-goal scorer Kenny Cooper.
Dempsey is an interesting choice, but for an altogether different reason. The London newspapers have him all but standing at Fulham's door, impatiently awaiting the opening of the January transfer window. And if that's the case, Bradley would surely prefer to see the feisty Dempsey jet across the Atlantic and get things started.
But perhaps the deal isn't that far along, or perhaps work permit issues are proving too sticky and the new U.S. coach sees Dempsey stuck stateside through January, at least.
We can take a few other morsels from the first call-up. For instance, it appears that "records" will be expunged and any holdover concerns from the Arena regime about certain individuals will be reassessed. We know that because of Joe Cannon's inclusion.
Cannon, now property of the Los Angeles Galaxy, has been Major League's Soccer's most outstanding goalkeeper over the last few years. So how to explain just one U.S. start for his career?
Obviously, Cannon had some dandy keepers in front of him. Still, Cannon would certainly have stood in the mix more often for friendlies and other less essential games unless Arena had concerns about how he affected team chemistry and locker-room accord. So Bradley has apparently laid any such concerns to rest.
What we can't glean is how Bradley feels about the most promising youngsters. Freddy Adu and young Red Bull scoring sensation Josmer Altidore will be busy in Panama in January, helping fellow U.S. youths attempt to qualify for this summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada. So they weren't in consideration for this camp.
And since the new coach's son, Michael Bradley, is in the under-20 mix as well, dad doesn't have to deal with that somewhat uncomfortable situation just yet.
Heath Pearce (FC Nordsjaelland, Denmark) is the lone non-MLS name on the list. Obviously, several tantalizing candidates for the next qualifying carousel continue to be involved in Europe. Rest assured, emerging defender Jonathan Spector would be in camp if he weren't currently standing tall on West Ham's back line. (Spector received official man of the match honors last weekend for his diligent work in the home side's big EPL upset over Manchester United.)
Jay DeMerit's side (Watford) is struggling mightily in the EPL cellar, but he'll certainly be seen before the matches gain more importance. And plenty of others remain tied up in Europe. Since the camp doesn't hinge around a FIFA international date, U.S. Soccer has no leverage to get them released and probably wouldn't want to anyway.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.