Of particular importance during the recent training camp is the so-called "target forward" position, where MLS stalwarts Brian Ching and Conor Casey are competing with each other for playing time -- and, perhaps, just one spot on the World Cup team. When I asked Bradley on Tuesday if Ching and Casey were fighting for one golden ticket, this is what he said: "Because they have similarities as players, it's a possibility it could come down to that. But I don't think we're at that point yet."
Both Ching, 31, and Casey, 28, could make a case for inclusion, not least because the absence of Charlie Davies after his October car accident has left the U.S. painfully thin at the forward position. (At this point, Jozy Altidore is the only forward who's a lock to make the World Cup team.) Ching started four of the U.S.' 10 games in the final round of World Cup qualifying and scored eight goals for Houston in MLS last season. Casey, meanwhile, provided two huge goals in the 3-2 win at Honduras in October, which punched the Americans' ticket to South Africa. His career-high 16 goals for Colorado made him the runner-up for the MLS Golden Boot to Jeff Cunningham.
Davies' speed gave the front line a new dimension, stretching out opposing defenses and creating space for the U.S. headliners, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, to attack from the midfield. The 6-foot, 192-pound Ching and 6-1, 190-pound Casey don't have that kind of speed. They aren't flashy players, nor are they asked to be. Ask them to describe their roles, and they're quick to mention things like holding the ball up front, battling in the air, scoring occasional goals and making runs off the ball.
"It's pretty simple," Casey said. "I'm not going to make a lot of chances out of beating two or three people, but I try to play simple and strong and get in good positions. You have 11 guys on the field, so certain guys do certain things. I'm aware of my limitations, but I try to do what I do as well as I can."
Ching, for his part, says he's healthy and refreshed now after taking two months off from soccer in the MLS offseason and missing the U.S.' January camp while strengthening an injured knee. Although he started in the 2-1 loss at Mexico in August, Ching wasn't chosen for the trip to Honduras in which Casey made such a big impact.
"In the Honduras game, it's kind of understandable," Ching said. "I think I struggled through the August and September part of the season last year. Physically and emotionally, I was kind of drained and down and wasn't at my best. I understand from the coach's point of view that that's what he saw. But I think I kind of climbed out of that at the end of the season and started playing better."
Of course, the gold standard for U.S. target forwards has always been Brian McBride, who played in three World Cups. Some observers have wondered if McBride, 37, might come out of international retirement for South Africa, but that seems unlikely. McBride wasn't part of the team during World Cup qualifying, and his inclusion on the 2008 Olympic team turned out to be far better in theory than in practice.
Barring injury or unexpected dips in form, then, Ching and/or Casey should be on the U.S. team. How will Bradley evaluate two players with such similar skill sets?
"Brian does a lot of dirty work as a forward that helps the guys around him," Bradley said. "In the second half of last season he had some injury issues, things that were probably kept a little bit quiet. But clearly it showed as the season went on with Houston. In January, we spoke with him and [Houston coach] Dominic Kinnear and decided he would spend the time strengthening his knee. So now this is his first camp back. You see the qualities he's always had, just in terms of his mentality on the field. Now we need to see as we move along with him where he is. How's he moving around the field? What's his mobility like? Is he getting goals?"
For Casey, Bradley says, it's important that he takes his scoring chances as he did against Honduras, but he needs to do more than just that at the international level.
"When the games go faster sometimes, it's about being in good position, holding certain balls, working with the other striker so that now our first line of defense is good," Bradley said. "Those are all things that now become necessary for him, things that maybe are asked at some level in the league but not totally. If he does a little bit up top for Colorado, gets his goals, for most MLS strikers that's probably fine. But everything changes a little bit when we go into international competition."
Like most MLS players, Ching and Casey are easygoing guys with varied interests away from the field. Ching grew up in Hawaii wanting to be a professional surfer -- he learned on Waikiki Beach from his surf-loving father -- but took up soccer at age 7 and fell in love with the sport while playing for his first coach, who happened to be his mother. These days he's into travel: During every MLS offseason, he tries to go someplace he has never been before. This past year it was Australia, where he visited an island near the Great Barrier Reef and surfed near Sydney.
Casey says he tries to get away from soccer when he's not playing. During his six years in Germany, where he played for Borussia Dortmund, Hannover, Karlsruhe and Mainz, he became a voracious reader of everything from Ayn Rand to Malcolm Gladwell. Now that he's living in his hometown of Denver again, he has taken up the guitar and spends his time attending Denver Nuggets games and enjoying the outdoors.
But both players know that mainstream U.S. sports fans won't find out much about them unless they make the World Cup team. And both say they're trying not to let the competition for a roster spot bother them.
"I don't think about it, honestly," Ching said. "The more you analyze it and try to think about it, the more worried you get and less focused about just going out there and playing."
The playing part continues Wednesday.
The deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement between the MLS players and the league is Thursday, and as the time passes the players seem closer and closer to going on strike. On Tuesday, I spoke to Los Angeles Galaxy player rep Chris Klein about the current situation. If you've read my book, you'll know that Klein is one of the smarter players in the league when it comes to economic issues. The owner of a business degree from Indiana University, Klein has worked as a financial adviser for MLS players, providing estate planning and investment strategy services since earning his Series 7 and Series 66 certifications in 2007. After his playing days, he plans to start a business advising soccer players.
"I'm optimistic by nature," Klein said. "Through the whole thing I've been very optimistic. It's reached a stage now where I don't have that optimism. In negotiations you hope that one side gives a little and the other side gives a little, and eventually we meet somewhere in the middle. That's not the case at this point. I'm hopeful it will move to that stage, but right now it's not the case."
The biggest sticking point is the players' desire for limited free agency within MLS. The league has said it is willing to provide more guaranteed contracts and fewer one-way league options (both union priorities), but it will not move an inch on internal free agency.
Klein emphasized that while the players aren't challenging the league's single-entity structure, he believes that there should be limited free agency for, say, a veteran like Steve Ralston who has finished his MLS contract. Ralston recently signed with second-tier St. Louis when he was unable to reach a new agreement with New England.
"A structure that I would [like to] see is a player who has played for a while in this league, take Steve Ralston, would have the opportunity to decide where he wants to play," Klein said. "I wouldn't even take away the rights from [New England] to be able to keep that player, but I believe a veteran player in our league should have some freedom of movement."
Keep in mind, the MLS season isn't scheduled to start until March 25, so the players could go on strike this week and still not miss any regular-season games. The first competitive game involving an MLS team is the CONCACAF Champions League game between Columbus and Toluca scheduled for March 9.
Henry Cárdenas, the Chicago-based promoter, landed a big fish this week: His company will be promoting a minimum of four games in the U.S. featuring the Argentine national team by the end of 2014.
"The agreement calls for a minimum of four, but I think we can do four or five," said Cárdenas, who wants the games to take place in the New York City area, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and perhaps Miami. (Of the Florida location, Cárdenas said the opponent "would need to be someone like Brazil to appeal to the demographic.")
The first game featuring the Albicelestes could take place as soon as September. The contract calls for Argentina to send at least seven of its A-roster players, and Cárdenas hopes the opponents will include Mexico, England, Brazil and the United States. (The Argentine federation will have the right to approve its opponents.)
"You have to bring the big teams," said Cárdenas, who's now starting to look for sponsors and a TV deal. His company owns the global television rights outside of Argentina, and he hopes the games will be televised on cable instead of on pay-per-view or closed-circuit.
• The U.S. is finalizing plans for a game on June 5 in South Africa. The likely opponent is fellow World Cup entrant Australia. The Socceroos reached the second round of Germany 2006 and could be a potential second-round foe of the U.S. if they can survive perhaps the World Cup's toughest group from top to bottom (with Germany, Ghana and Serbia). Sources said the game will probably be open to the public (i.e., not a closed-door scrimmage) and will likely be televised on one of the ESPN networks. The U.S. will arrive plenty early in South Africa, on May 31, nearly two weeks before the June 12 opener against England, in part to help the team get acclimated to the altitude.
• Speaking of altitude, U.S. Soccer officials told me two years ago that it was important for the team to be based during the World Cup at altitude near Johannesburg, which at 5,793 feet is higher than Denver. That's something to keep in mind after FIFA announced the training bases for all 32 World Cup teams on Wednesday. Gamblers take note: Any team that is based at sea level may have trouble when it plays at altitude. According to FIFA, 25 World Cup teams will be based at altitude, while seven have decided to be at sea level on the coast: France, Japan, Denmark, Cameroon, Greece, Nigeria and Algeria (one of the U.S.' group-stage opponents).
• Landon Donovan is enjoying a productive loan spell at Everton, so much so that he told Everton's official Web site on Wednesday, "Every day that goes by makes me think I want to stay here, but we'll see what happens." Donovan played well in Everton's 3-1 win over Manchester United on Saturday, a performance that was even more impressive considering he has been suffering from the flu (and canceled a planned CNN interview because of it). Everton's next game is Thursday in the Europa Cup at Sporting in Lisbon.
• U.S. coach Bradley is a hockey fan who took great pleasure from watching the U.S. hockey team's 5-3 upset of Canada on Sunday. While he was a senior at Princeton in 1980, Bradley piled into an old Toyota with two roommates and drove to Lake Placid with no tickets and very little money. Sleeping in their car at night, they managed to get tickets to see the U.S.-Czechoslovakia hockey game and Eric Heiden's speedskating exploits.
In some ways, Bradley says, he hopes his U.S. soccer team can emulate the Miracle on Ice team from Lake Placid: "The team in 1980 was different in so many ways, but unless you were a real college hockey fan at that time, nobody really knew who those players were. ... The first thing that happened was they won something as a team, where it took the collective effort and the mentality. That's something that certainly resonates every time we get together."
• Even bigger news than the result of the U.S.-El Salvador game this week will be the release of the U.S. roster for the Netherlands game next Wednesday in Amsterdam. It is scheduled to be announced on Thursday or Friday and (because it's a FIFA international date) will include all the European-based players who aren't injured. Because it's the last FIFA date before the World Cup, we should get a better idea of which players are in Bradley's plans to be a part of the 23-man roster for South Africa.
• The new U.S. uniforms by Nike will be unveiled publicly for the first time this week in London. They'll make their debut in the game against the Netherlands.
• If the MLS players go on strike this week, look for the U.S. to hold another national-team camp so that the domestic-based national-team players can stay sharp.
• U.S. center back Clarence Goodson is the only non-MLS-based player in camp, having completed an odyssey from La Manga, Spain (where his Norwegian team, Start, has been training), to Alicante, Madrid, London, Los Angeles and now Tampa in the past week. After going through that much effort, he can probably expect to start against El Salvador. Goodson, 27, a gangly 6-3, 175-pound University of Maryland product, spent four seasons with Dallas before moving to Norway in 2008. He says he's making use of his Generation Adidas education funding by studying for a religion degree online through Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
• On Tuesday, Bradley gave an interesting window into what he does when the national team isn't in camp together. After last month's Honduras game, he went on a two-week trip to Europe in which he sat down for one-on-one talks with several important U.S. players, including Donovan, Tim Howard, Dempsey, Jonathan Spector and Jay DeMerit. "It was a really good chance to sit down with those guys and talk about some of the things we've been through together," Bradley said, "and make sure that we're all ready to go" when the U.S. World Cup camp starts in mid-May. Bradley also met with several of the player's managers during his trip.
Check back for postgame reaction after the U.S.-El Salvador friendly later on ...