As 2009 opens for the U.S. men's national team, there is much that is familiar about the side's early preparations. Once again, a team stocked mostly with young players has made its way to Carson, Calif., for the annual January training camp. And, at its end, there is yet another friendly against Scandinavian opposition -- in this case, Sweden. Ho hum, right?
Perhaps, but all the more reason for U.S. head coach Bob Bradley to put a different twist on things as he enters his third year in charge. According to defender Danny Califf, who has participated in each of the January gatherings under Bradley, that is exactly what the U.S. manager has done.
"The first time around [Bradley] was really trying to tighten the screws and impose a new regime," Califf said. "Last year, he lightened up a bit with a few more young guys. And this year he's found a really good mix ... getting us fit without pushing us beyond the limit. He's refined it and refined it, and I think this year has been the best."
Yet even as the U.S. prepares for Saturday's game at the Home Depot Center, there's another reason why things are a bit different this year, and it has to do with the leviathan encounter looming on the horizon. I'm talking, of course, about the Americans' match on Feb. 11 against arch-rival Mexico that will open the final round of World Cup qualifying.
True, many of the players participating in the camp have little to no hope of even making the roster for that match, much less playing a prominent role. Most are hoping to show well enough to simply be invited back at some point down the line. But a quick scan of Bradley's roster reveals several players who will use Saturday's set-to to prove that they deserve to be included when the games matter most.
A player like Brian Ching will be aiming to show his fitness is at a high enough level to hang on to his role as the starting target man. The goal is similar for Jonathan Bornstein, especially given his struggles to stay healthy in 2008.
Then there are overseas players like Califf, Michael Parkhurst, and Charlie Davies, who have been battling to move from the fringes of the senior side into more prominent roles. All of this makes Saturday's match more than just a run-of-the-mill friendly.
"I think it's in the back of everybody's head," Califf said of the upcoming Mexico match. "I think everyone in this camp is looking to show that they can make a difference and possibly be in that squad. So I think this time, as opposed to the last time we played Mexico, it's an even bigger opportunity to be involved in that team."
Doing that requires putting in a good performance against a Sweden team with even less experience than the one the U.S. defeated last year by a 2-0 score. Legendary forward Henrik Larsson, once thought to be a candidate for Lars Lagerback's team, did not make the trip stateside. As it stands now, only two players -- midfielders Daniel Andersson and Samuel Holmen -- have more than 10 caps, with Andersson's 70 appearances by far the most of any player in the current squad. But many of the Swedish players have extensive experience at U-21 level, with Holmen and Goteborg defender Mattias Bjarsmyr among the players to watch.
"They're similar to us," Califf said of Sweden. "They're going to come and just be hard to play against. They're going to be physical. The soccer is probably not going to be pretty in parts of the game, but they're going to fight like you-know-what for every ball."
"I think [Sweden] are going to play a lot of long balls into their forwards and try to play off that," added Davies, who plies his trade with Swedish side Hammarby. "Then they'll play very aggressive; tackle and hustle as much as they can."
Such an approach should make things interesting for the American defense. Central defenders have been dropping out at an alarming rate due to injury, turning the camp into a game of last-man-standing for the likes of Califf. Chad Marshall, Cory Gibbs, Clarence Goodson, and Sean Franklin were unable to shake off injuries incurred during their league seasons. Stand-in Jason Hernandez was then felled by a calf strain. It's now left to Parkhurst, who was recalled from Danish club Nordsjaelland, to tempt the soccer fates and assume a likely spot alongside Califf.
But perhaps a bigger area of intrigue will be in the U.S. midfield. While Ricardo Clark and Sacha Kljestan (fresh off his one-week trial with Scottish champs Celtic) are among the more experienced players in camp, there remains plenty of room for performers like Robbie Rogers and Stuart Holden to make an impression. And with the U.S. attack still looking to find more consistency and dynamism, Bradley would like nothing more than for those two players to make his decision-making process going forward a bit more difficult.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. Sweden
Home Depot Center; Carson, Calif.
8:30 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Mexico
Columbus Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 HD