FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – One can imagine the relief Michael Bradley must have felt when he arrived in sunny South Florida, less than a day -- but many hundreds of miles removed -- from Toronto FC’s agonizing failure at Red Bull Arena. The shirt he wore Sunday at Lockhart Stadium was a far more familiar red and gray, and the prospect of rejoining the U.S. national team after more than three months away offered both excitement and relief.
Along with that, however, comes the pressure to perform. The fight for playing time is fiercer than ever and a return to competition isn’t that far away.
“You’re tired of repeating yourself, but it holds true: every chance you have to come in with the national team and be around this group of guys and represent your country, it’s something that will never get old,” Bradley said at Lockhart Stadium, where the U.S. is preparing for Tuesday's friendly against Honduras. “Every time you get in here, no matter what’s going in your club, no matter what your season has been like, it’s always special.”
Landon Donovan’s international career is now over and it’s time for the program to turn the page. That process began to some extent last month in Prague, where coach Jurgen Klinsmann fielded a lineup featuring several new players in a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic. It continued with Friday’s salute to Donovan and starts in earnest here in Florida, as several key veterans return to international action for the first time since the World Cup.
Joining Bradley on Sunday were captain Clint Dempsey, midfield linchpin Jermaine Jones and Sporting Kansas City stars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi. They each featured prominently in Brazil but missed the next two friendlies and now, at the start of a new World Cup cycle, they must balance the optimism and excitement accompanying a new beginning with the focus required to hold on to their places.
“I don’t know you can say that anyone’s a fixture on the team this early on,” said Zusi, who forced his way into the U.S. picture in 2012, halfway through the previous cycle. “That’s something a four-year cycle does, it weeds people out and brings people in and I think it’s our job as players to stay in the mainstream as much as possible and get better as players, because that’s what they’re looking for.”
The key, according to the recently-arrived veterans, was to avoid looking all the way to 2018. Consider the big names who played such a significant role in South Africa but fell short of Brazil: Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Herculez Gomez and, of course, Donovan, among others. Four years is a long time.
“It’s day by day and game by game. Sure, in a bigger sense, yeah, there’s a World Cup in four years. There’s a Copa América in two years,” Bradley said. “If you’re not concentrating on what you’re doing every day, on improving as a player, on helping whatever team you’re on, you’re never even going to get to that stuff … It’s about training that day and trying to put yourself in a position to be on the field for the next game. That’s always been the mentality.”
It certainly has to be under Klinsmann, who demonstrated with his decision to cut Donovan that absolutely nothing is guaranteed. Younger players like Mix Diskerud, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green are coming, and they’re confident.
“It’s excitement, but at the same time it’s a job to do,” said Dempsey, 31, who’s likely entering his final four-year cycle. “You have to make sure that you’re playing well to keep getting called in. You have to look forward to [next summer’s] Gold Cup, make sure you’re doing well there and if you’re able to win that tournament [or the ensuing playoff], then you play in the  Confederations Cup. Looking forward to the Copa América – that’s a competition that I haven’t gotten to play in. Hope I get the opportunity to do that and that’s kind of how you approach it.”
Tuesday’s match will be the first one that offers Klinsmann the chance to look at something resembling the national team’s current core. Nick Rimando, who appears to be neck-and-neck with Brad Guzan in the race for No. 1 spot, will start in goal. Klinsmann could deploy Besler and either Michael Orozco or Tim Ream in back alongside Yedlin, and a midfield featuring Bradley, Jones, Zusi and either Diskerud or Alejandro Bedoya. A forward tandem of Dempsey and Jozy Altidore would mirror the original plan for Brazil, which was scuttled by Altidore’s early hamstring injury.
Or Tuesday’s lineup could feature a mix. Greg Garza, Alfredo Morales, Miguel Ibarra and others are hungry for their opportunity.
“It’s normal that after one cycle ends, the beginning of the next cycle is used to kind of assess things. There’s younger guys who are given a chance to come into it with older guys, you’re trying to see still where guys fit in and everything, so that’s where we are at the moment,” Bradley said. “That’s what Jurgen is trying to do … this fall is kind of the only time to now use to get everybody ready for an important few years that will start next summer with the Gold Cup.”
Said Altidore, 24, who featured against Ecuador in Hartford, “It’s a transition period. You’ve seen the team the last couple games. It’s been a young team and it’s important now for the guys like myself, who have been involved, to kind of not let the level drop. To understand [younger] guys need time, but at the same time it’s on us to pick up the slack a bit for them. We get that. It’s part of the process. But I think the future is very exciting.”