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May 24, 2007

Bradley leans on veteran help for Gold Cup

One of the hallmarks of Bob Bradley's brief tenure as head coach of the U.S. men's national team is the way he's brought a new generation of players into the fold. While doing that, he's also tried to find the right balance of youth and experience, and in most cases he's gotten it just right. But in perusing the roster for the Gold Cup that was announced on Thursday, one begins to wonder if Bradley hasn't begun to retreat a bit from his pledge -- and the necessity -- of rebuilding his roster.

At first glance, there isn't much to quibble with here, and it's more than comforting to see the likes of Rico Clark, Benny Feilhaber, and Jonathan Spector on the list. It is these players who ultimately will form the backbone of the team that will hopefully take the field in South Africa in 2010. But there is the eyebrow-raising inclusion of players like Frankie Hejduk and Steve Ralston. Granted, both players have been on top of their respective games in the early weeks of the MLS season, and to a certain extent, both performers owe their spots due to injuries that have struck other players.

If Steve Cherundolo's creaky back, Chris Albright's injured leg, or Bobby Convey's ailing knee were healthy, chances are the likes of Hejduk and Ralston would have been left out. Yet Bradley was quick to praise the play of Hejduk, comments that easily could have been applied to Ralston as well.

"There are decisions involving veteran players where we feel that that is a player who can help us right now," said Bradley of Hedjuk's inclusion. "It's a player that is in good form, that brings the kind of qualities that make our group stronger for this event."

But is there really no room for someone like Nordsjaelland left back Heath Pearce? The Californian was called into camp last January, and the last image most observers have of him is his defense-splitting pass that sprung Kenny Cooper for the final goal against Denmark. Yet Bradley would not even hint that Pearce's exclusion means a trip to Venezuela is in his future. It makes one wonder if Pearce's proclamation to Soccer365.com last winter of being "the best left back the U.S. has" -- a not so subtle dig at Bradley fave Jonathan Bornstein -- might have rubbed the U.S. manager the wrong way.

The inclusion of Ralston is a little less troubling, only because I can't think of anyone else who should go in his place. Other candidates such as Chris Klein, Brian Mullan, and Freddy Adu have been far less impressive than Ralston has so far, making the right side of midfield easily the shallowest area of the U.S. depth chart.

The presence of Kasey Keller also raises some questions that have nothing to do with form or ability. When I first saw Keller's name on the list, I assumed that it was in preparation for Copa America, except Bradley stated that it's likely neither presumptive starter Tim Howard nor Keller will be around for the Copa. If that's the case, why include Keller at all? Everyone knows what he can do. Why not give the likes of Brad Guzan or Matt Reis another look in goal, and gain some valuable experience in the process?

Experience and leadership certainly play a part here, especially on a roster that contains its share of young players. But it seems to me that playing the likes of El Salvador or Guatemala at home is a relatively low-risk proposition. As for leadership, it's imperative that the likes of Landon Donovan and Pablo Mastroeni continued to shoulder more of that responsibility.

The only other noteworthy development was Bradley's naming of New England defender Michael Parkhurst. Ireland manager Steve Staunton had recently made it clear that Parkhurst, who holds dual U.S./Irish citizenship, was on his radar, which aside from Freddy Adu, might make him one of the first MLS products to be involved in such a tug-of-war. Bradley made it clear that his naming of Parkhurst was not preemptive, but even if it is, it's a good move, given his stellar play so far this year.

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