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Dec 20, 2008

Bradley to identify new crop of contributors

In what has become a tradition for the U.S. men's national team in recent years, the annual January training camp has usually been used to help MLS-based players work their way back to match-fitness after the MLS offseason, and also to identify the next crop of national-team contributors. This time around, however, the camp will carry more significance than usual.

The U.S. team's 2009 World Cup qualifier versus Mexico on Feb. 11 looms large on the horizon and will take place just three weeks after the January camp ends. This means that U.S. coach Bob Bradley will be focused on using the camp to get his MLS-based national-team regulars ready for Mexico as much as he will be taking a look at national-team newcomers.

While veterans such as Brian Ching, Pablo Mastroeni and Frankie Hejduk get themselves ready for the latest installment of "La Guerra Fria," a new generation of national-team prospects will be trying to impress Bradley and justify the hype surrounding some of them.

Here is a closer look at the players who could get the call when Bradley names his training-camp roster sometime before the new year:

Goalkeepers -- Troy Perkins, Will Hesmer, Jon Busch, Matt Pickens.

Perkins enjoyed a strong season for Valarenga, and Hesmer and Busch were arguably the two best MLS goalkeepers this season. Perkins has shown improvement since making the jump from MLS to Europe and has quietly made a case for being third in the national-team pecking order behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan.

It is easy to forget that Busch played his way into the national team mix back in 2005, before major knee surgery sidelined him. He was actually on the bench for the United States in its 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico in Mexico City in 2005.

Pickens may seem like a surprise here, but he was one of the best goalkeepers in MLS in 2007 before he spent 2008 giving Europe a try and struggling to find a suitable deal to return to MLS. Bradley could also turn to young prospect Chris Seitz.

Defenders -- Danny Califf, Jimmy Conrad, Michael Parkhurst, Clarence Goodson, Frankie Hejduk, Jonathan Bornstein, Marvell Wynne, Michael Harrington, Sean Franklin, John Thorrington.

Some familiar faces making their way back into the national team fold are Conrad and Bornstein, who both saw little action in 2008. Harrington emerged as one of the league's better left back prospects, and Franklin is coming off a rookie of the year campaign. Parkhurst just made a transfer move to Denmark, but the Danish League is on break, so he should join the camp.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Sweden
Jan. 9
Home Depot Center; Carson, Calif.

U.S. vs. Mexico
Feb. 11
Columbus Crew Stadium; Columbus, Ohio.

Bornstein will be trying to reclaim the starting fullback role he lost to Heath Pearce last year, but he will need to play better than he did in the U.S. team's qualifying win against Guatemala last month.

Thorrington is an interesting case. A midfielder by trade, Thorrington has piqued the interest of Bradley at fullback and could get another look here.

Wondering where Chad Marshall is? He is most likely going to make a January transfer move to Europe. Now, if he re-signs with the Crew or fails to land a deal before February (both unlikely), Marshall would certainly earn a call into camp.

Midfielders -- Ricardo Clark, Pablo Mastroeni, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers, Stuart Holden, Eddie Lewis, Kyle Beckerman, Jeremiah White, Benny Feilhaber, Davy Arnaud.

A good combination of veterans and youngsters should make this a fun group to follow. Kljestan emerged as a strong starter option in 2008, so he shouldn't be hurt too much if he winds up missing this camp because of a January transfer, which is possible. Rogers is one of the more intriguing prospects, both because of his success in MLS last season and the need for more options on the wing.

That also makes White an interesting candidate. A naturally right-footed player, White has played on the left on the club level and his speed, versatility and nose for goal should help him impress.

It will be interesting to see who Bradley turns to from the MLS pool of defensive midfielders. Clark and Mastroeni seem likely call-ups, but players such as Beckerman and Brian Carroll are coming off strong seasons. Then you have Feilhaber, who is recovering from a knee injury and could get a look as part of his rehab.

Three European-based players who could possibly make this camp if their teams release them are Freddy Adu, Maurice Edu and Danny Szetela, who are all struggling for playing time heading into January.

Forwards -- Brian Ching, Kenny Cooper, Chris Rolfe, Charlie Davies, Conor Casey, Edson Buddle.

Ching heads into 2009 as the U.S. team's leading target striker and he will need this camp, and the friendly against Sweden after it, to get himself ready for Mexico (as well as Houston's CONCACAF Champions League play in February). Bradley will be looking for good alternatives to forward favorites Ching, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Cooper is the fan favorite to join the rotation. His size and skill combination is unique, but he still hasn't sold Bradley, who has spoken repeatedly of Cooper's shaky showing in the January camp back in 2007. If Cooper can hold his own against the defenders in the pool, and outplay a veteran like Casey (who should also get a look), then Cooper will go a long way toward establishing a firm hold on a national-team place.

Davies and Rolfe will be vying for the role of speed forward option, with Davies looking like a front-runner for the role (assuming he doesn't miss the camp for a January transfer, which is a strong possibility).

Casey and Buddle are coming off strong MLS seasons but both have a lot to prove to earn consideration for national-team looks beyond January. Buddle is far from a lock to be called, despite his impressive goal-scoring rate, and could be passed over for young forwards Yura Movsisyan or Chad Barrett.

Jozy Altidore isn't expected to attend the camp, but if Villarreal does release him, Altidore could make progress in trying to reprise the starting role against Mexico he enjoyed last February. You might recall it was Altidore's first start and he scored a goal in a 2-2 tie.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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