Twenty-five players, most of them young and inexperienced on the international stage, will gather in Carson, Calif., this weekend with one mission in mind. They will work to impress U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley as he tries to settle on the group of players who will get him through this very busy and very crucial year for the national team.
This camp won't be like past January national team camps. There is no nucleus of national team regulars to provide leadership, only a collection of the best and most versatile American players MLS had to offer in 2008, a group that must contend with the ever-growing stable of European-based American players for those precious national team roster spots.
What should we be looking for in this camp? Here are five story lines to follow as the camp moves toward its conclusion, which will come when the U.S. national team faces Sweden on Jan. 24.
Jonathan Bornstein and Cory Gibbs have both had points in their career when they looked as if they might be future national team standouts, but injuries derailed those hopes for both, at least temporarily. Now both are healthy and will be looking to reclaim their places as first-team options.
With the left-back position still up for grabs after Heath Pearce failed to make it his own in 2008, Bornstein will have a chance to be Bob Bradley's left back in this camp. Injuries forced Bornstein off the national team radar for most of 2008 but Bradley is still an admirer of his ability and sure to take a long look.
Gibbs has played left back before but it remains to be seen whether he still has the speed to play there, or if he will be confined to the center-back pool. As a central defender, Gibbs combines size, athleticism and good feet, though he still didn't look near his best upon returning to MLS with Colorado last season. That can be chalked up, at least in part, to the fact that Gibbs hadn't been able to stay healthy for years. Now as healthy as he has been in some time, Gibbs just might be ready to emerge as the defender we thought we would see before an injury cost him a trip to the 2006 World Cup
The utility men
Coaches love players who can play multiple positions well and Bradley is no different, which is why it shouldn't come as a surprise that Geoff Cameron, Jack Jewsbury and John Thorrington were called into this camp. Cameron played everything from center back to striker for Houston and held his own as a rookie at every spot.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Sweden
Jan. 24, 2009
Home Depot Center; Carson, Calif.
8:30 p.m. ET
Jewsbury is a defensive midfielder by trade, but is also capable of playing on the right flank as a midfielder or fullback. Given the wealth of central midfield options in the national team pool and the dearth of right flank options, you shouldn't be surprised to see Jewsbury tried out as a winger and full back.
Thorrington is another combo player, having played on the right flank and in central midfield for the Fire while recently earning a look at right back for the national team.
The post-hype sleepers
U.S. fans and media love young prospects, so much so that a young talent rarely comes through the pipeline without being smothered with expectations. Inevitably, most of those prospects fall short of expectations, and many fall by the wayside permanently.
Eddie Gaven, Chad Marshall and Chris Rolfe all were given future star labels at young ages, only to see injuries and dips in form halt their ascensions to stardom. All three emerged in 2008 to make strong claims to once again be included in the national team conversation.
Marshall is the leader of this group. He was a part of the 2005 January national team camp, and had some caps to his name as a 20-year-old with loads of promise. Four years later, Marshall has overcome concussions and some early immaturity to blossom into the best defender in MLS. Now he enters the January camp as a very real candidate to challenge for a roster spot in 2009.
Rolfe was also a hot prospect in 2005 after a strong rookie season that earned him a national team look late that year. He has earned more caps in the four years since, but injuries have kept him from becoming a consistent part of the national team pool. Rolfe now comes into this camp riding the momentum of his best season as a pro. His ability to play on the right wing as well as at forward means a good camp could catapult him into some quality playing time in 2009.
Gaven did his part to help lead Columbus to the MLS Cup title and while he still has some flaws in his game it is hard to ignore the skill and ability he possesses on the wings. He has grown up quite a bit and his game-winning goal in the Eastern Conference final reminded us just how good he can be.
The goalkeeper committee
Remember when the pool of U.S. national team goalkeepers was absolutely loaded? With Brad Friedel retired from the national team, Brad Guzan serving as Friedel's understudy at Aston Villa, and Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann pushing 40, the pool is suddenly surprisingly thin once you get past Tim Howard.
Troy Perkins, Jon Busch and Will Hesmer will be looking to make their mark. Perkins has enjoyed a strong run as the starting goalkeeper for Norwegian power Valerenga and looks poised to become Bradley's third choice after Howard and Guzan.
Busch and Hesmer will have something to say about that after strong MLS campaigns. Busch, the 2008 MLS goalkeeper of the year, has made it most of the way back after having been a top choice back in 2005 (even making the bench in the road qualifier against Mexico that year). Hesmer came into his own this year, but Busch's experience gives him the edge. One player to watch for is Matt Pickens, who has gone a year without playing since leaving MLS for Europe. He was regarded as one of the best goalies in MLS before leaving, and should return to the league in 2009.
It is no secret that the national team needs help at forward. Even with Clint Dempsey's resurgence, there are still a lot of question marks about the forward pool. Enter Kenny Cooper, Charlie Davies and Rolfe. Brian Ching is still the standard bearer as the team's target forward, with his ability to hold the ball up, get teammates involved and help defensively.
Cooper showed a deadly scoring touch in MLS this year and will have a chance to show that he is worthy of all the hype surrounding him. Can he show the well-rounded game Bradley will want to see? Will he struggle with the speed of play on the international level?
Davies and Rolfe are the speed options and will likely be given looks on the wing as well as up top. Davies is coming off a strong season in Sweden and looks poised for a winter move to a bigger league. While the attention will be on Cooper in this camp, it could be Davies who makes the biggest impression. Rolfe is in a similar position to Davies and should push for playing time on the right wing if he can't supplant Cooper and Davies in the forward pecking order.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.