The national team just capped a busy 2010, but Bob Bradley's boys return to the field next week. The young ones, at least. Major League Soccer just decided its championship, but the teeny break closes quickly; the combine, draft and training camps are just around the corner.
So here's a little something to grease the wheels as we anticipate the start of the 16th MLS season, and while we ponder who might rise in the January U.S. camp.
Here are the 10 most intriguing figures to watch in U.S. soccer in 2011:
Juan Agudelo: A year ago, this kid had yet to play in a professional soccer match. Since then, the 18-year-old striker has debuted for the New York Red Bulls and scored for the U.S. national team. In fact, he's the youngest player ever to find goal in a U.S. shirt. Next month Agudelo will report to the United States' January camp, where coach Bob Bradley will get an extended look-see. The interesting thing is that Agudelo will most likely still be involved in the U.S. under-20 team, which is also holding a training camp in January. Bradley's choice to bring Agudelo to California (rather than the under-20 camp in Florida) says a lot.
Bruce Arena: The Galaxy is going for broke in 2011. And it's not hard to see why. David Beckham isn't getting any younger. Same for Juan Pablo Angel, assuming he signs. Landon Donovan will have a summer Gold Cup to worry about, but won't have any heavy lifting in World Cup qualifying, at least. That leaves him mostly free to concentrate on MLS matters. Long story short, this looks like the year the Galaxy needs to quit knocking on championship's door; they need to go ahead and kick the darn thing in. Who's in charge of it all? Why, that would be Arena, a man who knew how to win MLS championships in the early years, but has now seen 12 years come and go since he last earned hardware for a Major League Soccer club.
Clint Dempsey: Fulham's American attacker signed a long-term deal last summer that would (seemingly) keep him at Craven Cottage through the 2012-13 season. But that hasn't done much to quash talk lately of a move out of West London. His agent, Lyle Yorks, has dismissed specific reports that Liverpool or Germany's Wolfsburg are in pursuit. But Yorks did say that interest in Dempsey remains high. Fulham's precarious place in the EPL table -- the Cottagers would fall into second division English soccer if the season ended today -- will continue to fuel speculation. At 27, Dempsey is at a perfect age for a move to a bigger club.
Landon Donovan: As long as Donovan can kick a ball, he'll make news. He is well-established as the face of American soccer, and nothing that happens in 2011 will change that. For better or worse, he's also one of the few figures in U.S. soccer who can make news in the gossip columns, as his divorce filings to actress Bianca Kajlich did just last week. Oh, and have you seen this month's Outside magazine? Guess who is the cover boy? On the field, expect the year to begin with further reports of a new loan deal, even if Donovan has downplayed the notion lately. Whether he gets that needed winter rest or does something else, you'll certainly hear about it.
Stuart Holden: Soccer fans here have been wearing out Google, straining to gain info on a relatively obscure English side, Bolton. Holden is suddenly a central midfield fixture there, where the former EPL lightweight is making big noise this year. Bolton has climbed surprisingly to sixth in the table, so Holden and his teammates are now entertaining dreams of tournament play on the continent for 2011 if they can hold their nerve and maintain the position. Holden, meanwhile, is in a wonderful spot to elevate his status on the U.S. national team. He has played centrally for Bolton rather than out wide, as he does for his country. Could the players' success in England could steer Bradley's thinking, perhaps?
Jermaine Jones: His relationship with management at Germany's Schalke seems to be on the skids; Jones spent December dealing with a demotion to the Bundesliga side's reserve team. That's hardly ideal for a man who, late in 2010, showed that he could be a central figure in the U.S. national team shirt. So his club situation certainly bears watching. Jones, the German son of an American soldier, finally got on the field for Bradley in 2010 -- and he didn't disappoint. Regardless of what happens at Schalke, he'll be a building block for the United States in this year's Gold Cup. If things look good, the 29-year-old central midfielder could become a lineup fixture in the U.S. shirt as qualifying for another World Cup cycle draws near.
Sebastian Le Toux: Plenty of observers thought the Philadelphia Union's livewire midfielder deserved more attention in the league MVP conversation. Truly, 14 goals and 11 assists for an expansion team is startling production. What could make the 26-year-old Frenchman even more intriguing this year would be a push to gain citizenship and become eligible for Bradley's national team. Le Toux has his green card, which means he no longer counts as a foreign player for MLS roster purposes. He still faces a lengthy process toward gaining full U.S. citizenship and national team eligibility. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on.
Kevin Payne: There are two major battles to fight as fallen giant D.C. United attempts to right itself, and the club president will, as always, be front and center in all of it. The club has lots of work ahead to regain its competitive edge while simultaneously hoping for some desperately needed traction on the facility front. Payne ended 2010 by hiring the Ben Olsen, whom the president had previously written off as too inexperienced for the club's head coaching post. Not everybody is happy that Payne, among the chief architects of United's demise, will get yet another do-over as he heads the roster rebuild. As for the never-ending stadium saga: the latest is a feasibility study released by the Baltimore Development Corp. last week that says ... oh ... never mind. Just let us know when they put a shovel in the ground somewhere near Washington, D.C.
Tim Ream: Has the Red Bulls center back, who just enjoyed a stellar rookie season in MLS, already lapped Omar Gonzalez as the best U.S. prospect in central defense? Gonzalez still has plenty of upside, of course, but Ream continues to make an impression at just about every opportunity, at every level. He'll surely get plenty of chances in the U.S. shirt in 2011, when the Americans have prioritized victory in the Gold Cup. The January U.S. camp in Southern California will help shape the months ahead for Ream, 23, who debuted internationally in November as the United States prevailed in a friendly in South Africa.
Chris Wondolowski: The 2011 season will go a long way to solving one of the big riddles of 2010: Was his out-of-nowhere breakout season merely an anomaly? The Earthquakes' attacker had just 19 career starts over five seasons prior to 2010, when he nailed 18 goals to claim the league's scoring title. Most of those came over the back half of the season, so it really wasn't even a full season surge. He opens the calendar year in Bradley's training camp, so his moment to surprise us all over again is already here.