January is the time of year when U.S. soccer fans are forced to feed off scraps. MLS is idle, save for the SuperDraft, which is set to become more irrelevant with each passing year. There is also the occasional rumor of a big signing, which rarely comes to pass. But the U.S. national team gives American soccer gluttons something more substantial to gnaw on when it convenes in Carson, Calif., for its winter camp. It's where the best of MLS and a smattering of overseas players will show their wares and, they hope, shoehorn their way into the synapses of head coach Bob Bradley.
Last year, with Bradley's rebuilding project yet to take shape, there was considerable buzz over who from the next generation would emerge and stake their claim to a more permanent spot on the roster. And there were a few, like Chivas USA defender Jonathan Bornstein and Houston Dynamo midfielder Ricardo Clark, who were able to kick-start their international careers.
This time around there isn't quite as much anticipation. The competition for spots, while still open to a degree, has begun to settle a bit. Bradley gave 60 players a run-out in 2007, and with the U.S. U-23 camp commencing at the beginning of the month, one gets the sense that a player not already in either group must overcome steep odds to make a breakthrough this time around.
But there is an opportunity, however small, for some fringe players to make their mark. A few performers are already known to Bradley, but because of injury, they have been out of the national team reckoning and are desperate to get back in the fold. Then there are others who for one reason or another have never been capped by the senior side and will be looking to make their debut. Either way, these are players with plenty to prove.
1. Eddie Robinson, D, Houston Dynamo
Robinson has been called into camps in the past, including last year's gathering. And while injury scuttled some of his past opportunities, the fact that one of MLS' best defenders has yet to earn his first cap is a bit of a head-scratcher. Robinson's rugged tackling has long been a known quantity, but his pace is underrated, and his passing out of the back has improved immensely since he first entered the league in 2001.
With the Dynamo defender set to turn 30 next summer, he's now at a point where his age could begin to work against him. His tendency to accumulate yellow cards is another concern, although that hasn't stopped Oguchi Onyewu from becoming one of Bradley's first choice center backs. With defenders like D.C. United's Bobby Boswell suffering through a subpar season, the time is now for Robinson to take his chance.
2. Kenny Cooper, F, FC Dallas
Very few players will come into camp with as wide open an opportunity as Cooper. The former Manchester United forward was on the periphery of the team last year, and scored against Denmark on his debut. And he likely would have been on the Copa America roster if he had not suffered a broken leg in June. But there were also whispers that Bradley was a bit dissatisfied with Cooper's adjustment to the international game, especially when it came to his hold-up play. Cooper's subsequent injury made him the forgotten man of U.S. forwards.
But given the well-documented struggles of U.S. attackers, now would be an opportune time for Cooper to step up. Given his solid, 6-foot-3 frame, he could yet become the heir to Brian McBride, and his considerable skill on the ball could provide the U.S. with a more multidimensional threat. Cooper's performance at the end of the season showed that he was suffering no ill effects from his injury, and a solid showing in January could accelerate his progress at international level.
3. Colin Clark, M, Colorado Rapids
Clark was one of the few players worth watching on a bad Colorado team. He reminds me in many ways of Houston Dynamo midfielder Brian Mullan, in that he has pace, looks to take people on, and yet still pays sufficient attention to his defensive duties. The difference is that Clark is six years younger with a lot of upside.
Clark's resumé is thin in that his body of work consists of basically just half a season. But left-footed players aren't the easiest to find, and with DaMarcus Beasley out with torn knee ligaments, along with Bobby Convey's history of injury, you can bet that Bradley will be keen to look at some other left-sided options. At the minimum, Clark has shown enough to at least warrant an invitation.
4. Chris Rolfe, M/F, Chicago Fire
Rolfe is another player who suffered through an injury-plagued 2007, only to regain his form at the end, contributing some killer playoff goals. Rolfe also showed some versatility down the stretch with the Fire, getting some time in midfield as well as up top.
Such performances should give him some momentum heading into this year's camp, especially since the competition for forward slots is wide open. If Rolfe does see time up front, I hope that Bradley won't pair him up with another undersized player like Landon Donovan. That was the case against Mexico last February, and it was a dismal failure. Pairing Rolfe with a more physical type will provide a better indication of his ability at international level.
5. Arturo Alvarez, M, FC Dallas
I'll admit it. I'm cheating a bit on this one, since Alvarez's invite to the U-23 camp shows that he is clearly on Bradley's radar. But a call to the January camp isn't out of the question either following an MLS season that saw Alvarez finally begin to deliver on his long-acknowledged ability.
Granted, there are still some major flaws in Alvarez's game. His defense, while miles better than when he first entered the league in 2003, still has a long way to go. But his no-conscience approach to taking people on, combined with a lethal left foot, make him a rarity in the American player pool, and thus an intriguing project going forward.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.