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Sep 6, 2007

Bradley bides his time on selecting Altidore

When U.S. men's national team head coach Bob Bradley announced his roster for this weekend's friendly against Brazil (Sunday 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2), the focus was on who didn't make the team as opposed to who did. Such a reaction is typical, but the player in question wasn't. I'm referring to the man-child himself, New York Red Bulls' forward Jozy Altidore.

On this occasion, the stars did not align for the Livingston, N.J. native on several levels. Altidore has been carrying a right calf injury ever since his four-goal performance in the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and won't even be suiting up for the Red Bulls when they take on Chivas USA this weekend.

But even if Altidore had been healthy, it's unlikely he would have been called up. In Bradley's neverending (and understandable) quest to be on good terms with MLS head coaches, it seems that his first order of business when filling out his roster is determining which MLS team has the weekend off. (This week's winner: the Kansas City Wizards).

His second is selecting a player from the opponents of the L.A. Galaxy, so as to balance out the inevitable selection of Landon Donovan. Since Altidore didn't fit either of these criteria, I'll wager that even if fit, Altidore would not have earned his first cap against the Selecao. And it's likely that a call-up in October against Switzerland won't happen either, especially since MLS will be well into its stretch run.

But let's say that Bradley was suddenly freed from the straitjacket that the MLS schedule has put him in. Would he have called up the Next Big Thing in American soccer? Better yet, should he? I'll go on record as saying "Not yet."

Such sentiments are bound to make some segments of the American fan base apoplectic, and on a certain level, I understand. In recent months, Bradley has called in young talents like Hammarby's Charlie Davies, Wolfsburg's Kamani Hill, and Hannover 96 winger Sal Zizzo, all of whom have fewer professional appearances than Altidore, and barely a smidgen of his success.

U.S. schedule
U.S. vs. Brazil,
Sept. 9
Soldier Field Stadium, Chicago
4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

But there is one important difference between Altidore and players like Davies, Hill, and Zizzo, and that has to do with the gargantuan expectations that are being placed on the Red Bulls' forward. None of the abovementioned trio is expected to kick-start the American attack like Altidore, whose combination of size and finishing ability has fans salivating, especially after watching a parade of U.S. forwards squander chance after chance earlier this summer.

That is an immense burden to be placing on a 17-year-old, and throwing a player that young into the mix against a team like Brazil risks doing considerable damage to his confidence. That is why Altidore, who has yet to complete a full professional season in MLS, should be treated with kid gloves for a bit longer.

I expect that come next winter, when Bradley will likely hold an extended camp along with several friendlies, Altidore will be included. This will give the U.S. staff the requisite time to bring him along gradually, and get him up to speed on the increased demands of the international game. Until then, the calls to bring in Altidore will -- and should -- go unheeded.

The clock is ticking however for several players on the U.S. roster, and not just forwards like Eddie Johnson. The central defensive pairing of Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra has looked far from solid lately, begging the question of why Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad is not in the side. This is especially puzzling given that the squad is well-stocked with Wizards' players like Kerry Zavagnin and Davy Arnaud, who while having solid seasons, won't play much of a role in World Cup qualifying. Given the fact that performers like Kaka, Ronaldinho, and Robinho will be taking the field, perhaps Conrad is counting his lucky stars that he'll be watching the match from the safety of his couch. By not playing, his stock will probably go up.

That said, a good performance against Brazil could see players like Heath Pearce and Jonathan Spector garner future assignments at left back, although Kansas City defender Jose Burciaga Jr. is another conspicuous omission. Jonathan Bornstein, whose club commitments will keep him otherwise occupied this weekend, has had a near chokehold on the position since Bradley took over, despite some less than convincing performances. Pearce and Spector now have the chance to change Bradley's thinking.

The rest of the roster is stocked with the usual suspects, save for Josh Wolff, who wins the Man Who Came in From the Cold Award, having not featured for the U.S. since the 2006 World Cup. Wolff's inclusion is interesting in that he has played in a wide midfield role for 1860 Munich after playing forward for practically his entire MLS career. A solid performance out wide could get Wolff back in the mix for World Cup qualifying in a position that has been somewhat difficult to fill in recent years.

Up top, Clint Dempsey should get an opportunity to translate his stellar form at club level to the national side, with Donovan his likely partner. U.S. fans should drink it in though, because one year from now, the man-child will have arrived.

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