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Jan 8, 2007

Plenty of opportunity in Bradley's first training camp

There is a common theme surrounding the U.S. men's national team's current training camp in Carson, Calif. That theme is New Blood.

From the new voice coaching the team, Bob Bradley, to the new players who make up the majority of the pool of players called in by Bradley, there is a refreshing feeling as the national team prepares for a very busy year.

Bradley has three weeks to put his MLS-heavy contingent through the rigors of camp, working to catch their fitness up with the rest of the world. He also will be trying to identify which players can bring the most to his eventual pool of players for the four or five games he will get to coach before the summer.

Bradley's task with the current group isn't as much about finding pieces to a puzzle as it is finding out which of Major League Soccer's young generation of standouts have the tools and mentality to excel on the international level. With two tournaments this summer, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Copa America, there is plenty of opportunity for new faces to emerge.

"It's a transition time," Bradley said. "We know there are important guys who have retired. We've got to start the cycle by working in some young players. We've got to make sure that some of the players that are experienced and still part of the team take on bigger roles."

That last comment applies to the likes of Pablo Mastroeni and Jimmy Conrad, older players who will be among the candidates to fill the leadership void left by the retirements of Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope.

More important than filling the leadership void is filling the talent void, something Bradley is hoping he will be able to do with this generation of MLS players. Although most of the players have something to prove, here are the five U.S. national team newcomers in camp who will garner the most attention:

Michael Parkhurst

He is not the biggest or the fastest defender you will ever see, but the Revs center back has put together two stellar seasons in MLS. Parkhurst combines impeccable timing and positioning with an ability to read the game not seen in many American defenders.

Central defense isn't exactly a thin position for the national team, with Oguchi Onyewu and Conrad regarded as the top center backs in the current pool, but if Parkhurst can be as cool, calm and collected on the international level as he is in MLS, he could play his way into a key role in one of the summer's upcoming tournaments.

Ricardo Clark

Long regarded as the national team's defensive midfielder of the future, Clark has gone from exciting prospect to polished pro in four seasons in MLS. An ankle injury a year ago prevented a potential move to Europe, but Clark benefited by flourishing with the Houston Dynamo.

What remains to be seen is whether Clark's ability to cover box to box translates to the international level. He's certainly fast enough and fearless, but he has yet to show whether his impressive technical ability will translate to the international level. Clark, who turns 24 next month, should get plenty of opportunities this year.

Jonathan Bornstein

An unknown rookie prospect just a year ago, Bornstein has had his stock rise faster than anyone else in this camp. The reigning MLS rookie of the year has proved to be a dynamic left back option also capable of playing in midfield, where he spent a good portion of the second half of the 2006 MLS season.

Bornstein, 22, is one of three left backs in camp, along with Todd Dunivant and Heath Pearce, so the Chivas USA standout will have a good chance to show his former club coach how he measures up. With no clear-cut first choice left back in the pool, this camp likely will determine who starts against Denmark and Mexico. Although Dunivant is arguably the best attacking option and Pearce the better defender, Bornstein could be the most complete left back of the three. That won't keep him from getting looks on the left wing.

Justin Mapp

One of the most talented young players in MLS for a few years now, Mapp finally turned potential into production by putting together an All-Star caliber season that has led some to believe he is ready to take a key role in the national team. A longtime left midfield prospect, Mapp has spent five seasons in MLS honing skills to play at every attacking position in midfield.

Although left midfield is his strongest position, a lack of depth in the national team pool at attacking midfielder and right midfield should help Mapp get long looks in both spots. Just 22, Mapp flourished playing centrally for the Chicago Fire at times this year, and his combination of speed, touch and vision makes him the most intriguing midfield prospect in camp.

Kenny Cooper

It is no secret that forward is the thinnest and most worrisome position in the U.S. national team pool. McBride's retirement has left a big void no one appears ready to fill. Cooper has emerged as an exciting candidate to replace McBride as the team's target forward. The former Manchester United prospect impressed during his first year in MLS, showing a nose for the goal and surprising technical skill for a player his size (he's 6-foot-3).

Although Brian Ching has the edge in terms of experience and accomplishment and Taylor Twellman has a more established track record as a goal scorer, Cooper is young (he's 22) and has the maturity that comes with spending three years in Europe. It would not come as a surprise if Cooper emerged as a first-choice national team forward before the year ended.

The five aforementioned players are hardly the only ones whose national team chances will be exciting to watch unfold. Sacha Kljestan, Chris Rolfe and Bobby Boswell are also young players who will be worth watching in the coming months, but Parkhurst, Clark, Bornstein, Mapp and Cooper have the makings of a Fab Five that could become a national team fixture for years to come.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.