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Aug 31, 2009

Jones and Castillo still awaiting FIFA clearance

When U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley revealed his roster for this coming weekend's crucial World Cup qualifier against El Salvador, some observers were quicker to notice a pair of omissions than any of the names actually on the list. No Jermaine Jones? No Edgar Castillo? When, many wondered, will Bradley call in the two newest additions to the American player pool? While only Bradley himself will be able to answer that question in the long run, for the time being, the coach's hands are tied. As he was choosing his team for the El Salvador game and the match with Trinidad and Tobago four days later, Jones and Castillo were still ineligible to play for the United States. Both dual-nationals announced they would switch their international soccer allegiance to the U.S. after a FIFA ruling in June opened that door for players of any age not cap-tied at the full international level. But FIFA still must approve each change. The paperwork of both Jones and Castillo is still sitting on some bureaucrat's desk in Switzerland. Exactly when either might be given the stamp of approval is anyone's guess. Jones' agent says he can't give any details or a time horizon for a decision on his client's petition, since FIFA won't give him any specifics. "The paperwork is delivered," Castillo said of his own request. "Now I just have to play well and wait for a call." But while Castillo is busy with a new club season in Mexico, playing is something that Jones hasn't been doing much of lately. The Schalke midfielder has been sidelined since early summer with a hairline fracture in his leg. Team officials say they don't want him to rush back at the risk of further injury.

U.S. men's schedule
Saturday
U.S. vs. El Salvador
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com

Wednesday
U.S. vs. Trinidad and Tobago
Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain, Trinidad
6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com

"He had a similar injury with his other leg two or three years ago, but he came back too early because he was eager to play as soon as possible," Schalke press officer Thomas Spiegel said. "It turned out that in the end he only played two games and was again injured for another half year, so we want to be very careful about this." Spiegel says Jones is once again anxious to get back on the field, but with Schalke just kicking off its Bundesliga campaign, the team wants to assure that its prized ball winner is fully healed before sending him back out. "We know that Jermaine is always very keen to get back as soon as possible, so it was the coach and doctors that had to stop him and say do not do anything too soon," Spiegel said.
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Unlike Jones, Castillo can at least make his case for national team selection on the field while he waits for word from FIFA. On loan this season at Tigres, Castillo has recovered some of the form that had him rumored for a European switch before moving to Mexican giant Club America last season. Castillo has been reunited in Monterrey with coach Daniel Guzman, who gave him his first chance as a professional at Santos. The left-footed defender hasn't missed a minute in Tigres' first six matches of the 2009 Apertura campaign, and scored his first goal of the season Sunday against his former club. "Here at Tigres, I'm better off than I was last year," Castillo said by phone after the game. "I'm the starter, and I have a year to concentrate here. It's good to be back with Daniel, who brought me into the team at Santos and has confidence in my abilities." Castillo, noted for the attacking flair he brings to the left-back position, says he is working hard on his defense as he hopes for a call from Bradley. "Here I play on the left side, and I go forward a lot," Castillo said. "But I'm working hard on defending. For the national team, I could play the same position, bringing that offensive side to the wing." Exactly when Bradley can give Castillo the chance to prove those abilities on the international level still depends on FIFA. The organization has already processed at least one petition for a change of national affiliation -- that of American national Arturo Alvarez of the San Jose Earthquakes, who switched his soccer allegiance to El Salvador and suited up for the Central Americans for the first time on Aug. 12, playing the second half in a 1-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago. FIFA says Alvarez, who had represented the U.S. at the youth levels, received expedited approval because he had attempted unsuccessfully to change allegiances in the past. Ironically, Alvarez likely will line up across the field from the Americans this weekend in Utah. A FIFA spokesman said the organization could not comment on the specific cases of Jones or Castillo and noted that the process is a new one given the recent rule change, but indicated that 60 days seemed like a reasonable guess at an average time to rule on a switch of allegiance. Jones' paperwork was filed early in the summer, meaning a decision could be imminent. Jones returned to light training with Schalke late last week and will work his way back to fitness. If his recovery goes well, Jones may see the field for his club as soon as mid-September, when the Bundesliga resumes after the international break. Given the team's preference to err on the side of caution, however, later in the month seems like a more realistic target for the midfielder's return, casting doubt on his potential participation with -- and usefulness to -- the Americans in their final two World Cup qualifiers in mid-October. A decision in Castillo's case may take longer. The New Mexico native said his paperwork was filed in early August, and his agent told him there might be some news in the coming weeks. However, a USSF spokesman said Castillo was still in the process of completing the submission of his documentation last week, and that FIFA would not be able to rule on his case until he had done so.
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With Bradley unlikely to experiment with his lineup in what are almost certain to be high-stakes matches in October, barring the unlikely scenario that the U.S. is able to qualify in the next two games, Castillo, like Jones, probably won't be wearing a U.S. jersey in a meaningful match in the near future. If the U.S. does manage to qualify for the World Cup among CONCACAF's top three finishers, avoiding a home-and-home playoff in November with a South American team, the two could get their first shot at representing the American colors in friendly matches later in the year. That is, if that paperwork isn't still buried on a desk at FIFA headquarters. Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.

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