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Nov 26, 2008

U.S. will use 2009 to fine-tune player pool

During Saturday's conference call with reporters, U.S. men's national team coach Bob Bradley was asked just how deep he thinks the American player pool is. After what seemed like an eternity, Bradley's number crunching put the total between the high 30s and lower 40s. Given the way 2009 is shaping up, Bradley might use every single one of them.

Next year's calendar for the U.S. men figures to be the busiest it's ever been, and that assessment is made with a respectful nod to 2007, when the U.S. played in both the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Copa America over a one-month period. On that occasion, Bradley was forced to cull the depths of the U.S. pool, essentially using a different team for each of those competitions.

A similar exercise appears to be in the offing for next year. In June the U.S. will play two World Cup qualifiers -- an away match against Costa Rica on June 3 followed by a home encounter with Honduras three days later. The U.S. will then depart for South Africa, where the Confederations Cup will be held from June 14-28. As for the Gold Cup, the exact dates aren't known at present, but a CONCACAF spokesman confirmed that the tournament will take place sometime after the Confederations Cup is completed.

Given this slate of games, it appears that Bradley will have to be just as creative with his roster in 2009 as he was in 2007. The U.S. coach stopped short of saying two separate teams would be needed, but that seems a likely outcome, with a clear emphasis being placed on the Confederations Cup.

"Given the way the [Confederations Cup] draw went ... our ability to transition from those two qualifiers into the Confederations Cup should be fairly straightforward," said Bradley. "Then we'll have greater challenges that will require a lot of discussions to know exactly how to field our best team for the Gold Cup."

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Sweden
Jan. 24, 2009
Home Depot Center; Carson, Calif.
8:30 p.m. ET

One important difference, however, is that in 2007, the U.S. was invited as a guest to Copa America, and as a result, club teams were not required to release players for that competition. That won't be the case in 2009.

"Because both [competitions] are on the FIFA calendar, [Bradley] will have his choice," said U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, who was on the same call. "That doesn't mean he'll take all the same players to the two competitions, but we won't be in the situation where the club can deny the release of a player because of the rules."

Of course, there are the rules and then there is reality. No European clubs will be keen to have their players participating in international tournaments for the better part of two months, especially during a period when they are normally getting at least some rest. And Bradley can expect some considerable push-back from MLS coaches if they're asked to do without key performers during the heart of the regular season. (And for those who scoff at the MLS league program, seven teams will miss the playoffs next year, increasing the regular-season stakes.) While it's true that the regulations will give Bradley more leverage than he had in 2007, some considerable give-and-take seems certain.

"Communication with the clubs will be very important," said Bradley. "As always, we want to compete at the highest level for the different events."

Given these parameters, it's expected that a B/C team, much like the one used last week against Guatemala, will be on display at the Gold Cup. With no spot in a future Confederations Cup on the line, it's the perfect environment to see which players are capable of challenging for spots with the full team, especially since the final round of World Cup qualifying will have reached its halfway point.

That leaves the A team to contest the Confederations Cup, where once again the U.S. received a ridiculously difficult draw. In most cases, this development would be an excuse for conspiracy theories accompanied by much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But on this occasion, the organizers did the U.S. a favor. Playing against the likes of Italy, Brazil and Egypt should give Bradley a clear indication of the progress his team has made since a similar three-match swing against England, Spain and Argentina last spring.

It should also help him solidify the last few available spots in his starting lineup, which at this point consist of striker, left back and a spot in the center of midfield. The race is now on to see if Jozy Altidore can supplant Brian Ching up top, with Altidore aiming to sharpen the more subtle aspects of his game in order to make the position his own. On defense, Heath Pearce of FC Hansa Rostock looks to have a hold on the left back spot, but with Jonathan Bornstein healthy again and Jonathan Spector approaching that point, the position isn't a lock for Pearce just yet, especially if he can't rise above bit-part status with his club.

The race to partner Michael Bradley in the center of midfield is even more wide open. A year ago, the position was Benny Feilhaber's to lose, but lose it he did. A combination of injury and poor club form has conspired to make him an iffy proposition just to be on Bob Bradley's final World Cup roster in 2010. A parade of players have since been tried there. Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljestan and old warhorse Pablo Mastroeni have each gotten a shot at the position, with all four enduring some ups and downs during their spells in the lineup.

But at this stage, Kljestan appears to have edged in front. The Chivas USA midfielder offers more going forward than any of his competitors, and his defense has improved to the point that he's not a liability. If Kljestan can maintain the rate of improvement he has shown over the past year, then the impact on the U.S. lineup could be significant in that it would ease the creative burden currently being assumed by Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Clark's defensive range remains immense, but his passing has proved to be ragged against tough opponents. The same goes for Edu, whose problems are compounded by the fact that he is seeing little playing time at club level for Rangers. Mastroeni remains a known quantity, providing plenty of steel in the middle. But at age 32, does he have the mobility to get the job done?

For those who think Freddy Adu's name should be in the mix here, his future lies further up the field, but I don't see him supplanting Donovan or Dempsey as the attacking midfielder in the 4-5-1 that Bradley prefers. Out wide remains a possibility, but only if his defense improves markedly, something that isn't bound to happen if he continues to ride the pine at Monaco.

That said, the busy 2009 schedule will certainly give Adu and others plenty of chances to prove themselves as the World Cup finals approach.

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

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