Six months from now, the U.S. national team will take on England to start the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and while there is a good chance that most of the key American players in that match will be players who are already fixtures of the team, there is still a good possibility that some relatively new faces will emerge in 2010 to be World Cup factors.
Bob Bradley's search for those players will begin next month when he convenes the first U.S. national team camp of the year. The camp, which will consist of MLS players with a few players from the Scandinavian leagues (which are on winter break), should offer Bradley the chance to see some of the prospects he has yet to get a good look at. It isn't exactly easy to find such candidates considering the number of different players Bradley saw in 2009.
The coach did a thorough job of checking out a wide variety of players, but there is still a group of young talents who are poised to emerge if called on next month. Here are some young players we could see getting a look when the U.S. national team convenes at Home Depot Center next month:
Robbie Findley, forward, RSL
No national-team prospect enjoyed a better MLS postseason than Findley, who helped propel Real Salt Lake to an MLS Cup title and staked his claim to a place in the race to try to fill the void left by Charlie Davies' absence. Findley's speed has always been there, but his improved confidence and finishing earned him a call-up in October, and also make him a prime candidate for a serious national-team look in January.
"He's slowly gotten better at different parts of the game," said Kansas City coach Peter Vermes. "He's got a good work rate for a forward, and is a guy that will put other teams' backs under pressure.
"More than anything, you can tell he's a much more confident player now."
Geoff Cameron, defender/midfielder, Houston
No player showed more versatility in MLS than Cameron did this year. When the Houston Dynamo needed cover in central midfield, Cameron was there. When a right winger was needed, Cameron could do that too. When the Dynamo needed a long-term solution in central defense, he stepped in and played center back like a seasoned veteran.
Cameron earned a call-up to last year's January camp, but an injury kept him from making his national-team debut. His MLS Best XI performance in central defense, and ability to play a myriad of positions, make him one of the safer bets to be called in again.
"His transition to playing central defender was pretty smooth for a player who started out as a forward and midfielder," said Red Bulls interim head coach Richie Williams. "He's really played well anywhere they've put him."
"His versatility can only help him, and when you look at where he has played, he's someone who can play several positions well," said Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear. "I think midfield might actually be his best position on the international level. I thought he looked good wide on the right."
Chris Pontius, forward, D.C.
As strong as the 2009 MLS rookie class was, perhaps no rookie attacking player was as impressive as Pontius, who showed a nose for the goal and an ability to play as a forward and a wing midfielder.
"He brings versatility, he's got good size and he's brave," Kinnear said of Pontius. "He plays out wide and up front and scores goals. He's got a hunger to score."
"His potential is huge," Vermes said of Pontius. "He has great attacking tendencies, he seems extremely hungry as an attacking player, and physically he already brings the goods."
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Kevin Alston, defender, New England
While other rookies garnered more headlines last year, Alston was quietly establishing himself as one of the best right backs in MLS. His blazing speed, toughness and ability to get forward made him one of the season's revelations.
"He's got the speed, determination and work ethic to get up and down the sideline," Vermes said. "The question with him and a national-team look is whether he can handle another job so soon. He just made the transition from college to MLS, now he would need to make the jump to the international level.
"Could he handle it? He's got the speed to deal with playing the position at that level," Vermes said. "If anything, a call-up would be a great experience for him at this point in his career."
Darrius Barnes, defender, New England
The surprise of the 2009 MLS draft, Barnes didn't just emerge as a contributor as a late-round draft pick; he stepped in and became the anchor of New England's defense as a rookie. That is no small feat for the athletically gifted and cerebral center back. The U.S. national-team depth chart at center back is stacked, but Barnes showed enough this past season to at least merit a look in January.
"He's an athletic back, he's fast and strong and he reads the game very well," Williams said of Barnes. "For a first-year guy to come in and be a center back in this league is a great accomplishment."
"The question with him, and with all the young guys, is how fast do they absorb or acclimate to the speed of play," Vermes said. "The way he adapted to the pro game so quickly is a good sign that he might be able to handle it."
Omar Gonzalez, defender, Los Angeles
The 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year played like a veteran in helping the Los Angeles Galaxy defense go from laughingstock to powerhouse. Gonzalez's imposing size and ability to deal with all challenges thrown at him impressed observers throughout the league.
"[Gonzalez] is young, and he did a good job of being ale to deal with his first MLS season, which is much different than dealing with the college season," said former U.S. national team defender Marcelo Balboa. "He was a very quick learner in this league, learning what his strengths or weaknesses are.
"You have to like his size and physical build, and while he's maybe not someone who will make the World Cup team next year, he's someone you can look at now."
Alejandro Bedoya, midfielder, Orebro
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The U.S. team's lack of options on the left flank are well-documented, and the search for players who can fill that void should lead Bradley to Bedoya, who is coming off a rookie season as a pro having established himself as a starter in Europe.
Bedoya finished the Swedish League campaign as a regular starter for Orebro, and showed the type of attacking qualities the U.S. team needs on the left wing, which are an ability to cross as well as take on defenders. He is still young at 22, but with the Swedish season on winter break, a call-up would make sense for Bedoya come January.
Marcus Tracy, forward, Aalborg
While he didn't quite establish himself as a starter in Europe the way Bedoya did, Tracy did finish the year as a starter for Aalborg. He started the club's final four matches of the calendar year, scoring one goal and flashing glimpses of the ability that had him atop most 2009 MLS draft boards before he bolted for Europe.
The U.S. team's lack of established forward options makes Tracy an intriguing prospect, and with the Danish League on winter break, the January camp would be the perfect opportunity to see how much the 22-year-old Hermann Award winner has matured as a player since leaving Wake Forest for Denmark a year ago.
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Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.