Publish date:

Bradley to begin fine-tuning

A camp of 30 must be reduced to 23, so critical selections will unfold in the U.S. camp beginning Monday in Princeton, N.J.

The personnel choices for studious U.S. coach Bob Bradley are fairly obvious: The trim list is likely to include one defender, three or four midfielders and at least two forwards.

Even before those weighty roster snips -- reductions that will crush seven players while pollinating a fresh thorny batch of debate -- another big decision looms for Bradley. It's a strategic choice relating to the bigger picture of the Princeton process:

How will he approach the camp in general and, specifically, in regard to a pair of friendlies along the East Coast? Is it all about fine-tuning the core group, which means going primarily with the starters May 25 against Turkey and May 29 against the Czech Republic? Or is it about rendering final judgment on bubble guys, which means giving the minutes to players who may not even appear in South Africa?

Bradley can do both, but only to a point. And there will be one friendly, at least, where the coach can comfortably deploy the starters: June 5 against Australia, shortly upon South African touch down. The final 23 will have been submitted by then.

On one hand, the core has extensive time together in qualifiers and more recently in a 2-1 loss to the Netherlands in March. So familiarity isn't necessarily a big problem. On the other hand, further time in the marinating process can't hurt. The little things do matter in a World Cup, after all, so polishing communication and sharpening awareness on certain situations can mean a world of difference. Behind England, the three remaining teams seem fairly well matched in Group C, so the margins between big success and first-round futility seem tiny.

Plus, there will some acclimatizing with a new attacker somewhere along the line. That could mean getting chummy with a new striker in Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez or Robbie Findley. Or it could mean a fresh face in midfield as a Stuart Holden or Sacha Kljestan is introduced into the wide midfield mix (which would mean Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey moving to forward).

Even in central midfield, there's a strategic choice to be made prior to final personnel choices. Michael Bradley has been the constant, lining up in 15 of 18 qualifiers. Only Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra participated in as many.

But who will partner with Bradley in the middle of the 4-4-2 we're almost sure to see? Does the coach pick a guy and get a head start on improving the partnership with Michael Bradley? Or will the camp and the May friendlies be devoted to finding that guy?

The candidates for this important spot seem fairly well matched. Maurice Edu has started lately for Rangers, although he's the least experienced candidate with just 12 caps. Ricardo Clark's early days at Eintracht Frankfurt were pinned down by injury, but he did make the final three Bundesliga starts amid positive reviews. Club officials appear ready to pick up an option to keep the rangy midfielder at the Commerzbank Arena. And there's always Benny Feilhaber or even the more remote possibility of a central role for Donovan.

Even in defense, is this camp about fine tuning communication and coordinated movement along the back line, or is it about picking the top four of the moment? Truly, among nine defenders in camp, only Carlos Bocanegra is sure to start in South Africa. Even then we're not sure just where, at left back or in the middle?

SI Recommends

Complicating matters is the choice regarding Oguchi Onyewu. In terms of defense, a lot of this camp is about getting the big guy's sea legs about him -- and there is some risk in that. If Bradley goes with Onyewu in the pair of May friendlies only to discover that his first-choice center back simply can't cope physically, then the Americans could face England on June 12 with a back line of scant experience as a foursome.

This isn't a choice then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena needed to make four years ago; FIFA's procedural guidelines required the 23-man roster to be chosen earlier, with a list of alternates at the ready. So Arena announced his final 23 on May 2. His lineup choices in three friendlies prior to Germany departure reflected a clear pecking order.

FIFA added more wiggle room to the process this time; Final rosters aren't due to FIFA until June 1.

Has Real Salt Lake found the missing ingredient in Costa Rica international striker Alvaro Saborio? The question may seem silly since the men of Utah reign as league champs. Then again, RSL nearly missed last year's playoffs with that unsightly 11--12--7 mark. Such a modest record this year might not qualify for postseason play.

RSL's well-balance midfield has never been the problem. Nor has goalkeeper Nick Rimando. But mental lapses in defense and the inability to turn possession into goals has sometimes nicked Jason Kreis' side. The missing piece has been a target forward to offer variety in attack and, more importantly, supply consistent, clinical finishing. Saborio, who scored his third and fourth goals in Thursday's big win over Houston, looks like that guy.

Upon his 2010 arrival, Saborio immediately looked like someone who could assist in possession through heady hold-up play. Now he's found the scoring zone, too.

There will be hugs and a round of "Go get 'em!" upon the completion of MLS Round 8. Some of the league's poster boys will disappear for up to six weeks, joining Bradley's training camp and then, for some, heading to Africa.

Others may miss only a week or two before rejoining their MLS sides -- dragging the emotional undertow of a near brush with every soccer player's dearest dream.

The West-leading Galaxy will bid adieu to league assist leader Donovan and possibly to league scoring leader Buddle until late June at least. Even though MLS will break for two weeks next month, Donovan (and perhaps Buddle) will miss five MLS matches at least.

Bruce Arena's side has built such a comfortable lead, his Galaxy could decline to show up for its next three and remain tied for first at very worst. So, even though L.A. could be hardest hit by departures, the Galaxy should emerge just fine on the other side.

Chivas USA could possibly be worse off. Jonathan Bornstein is almost sure to make Bradley's 23-man roster. Kljestan's odds are longer, but his loss would cripple the Goats' attack. Jesus Padilla's bright play has added some pep to the offense lately, but Kljestan runs the show.

Of course, it's not all about World Cup rosters. At Red Bull Arena, Hans Backe's Eastern Conference leaders host struggling Seattle in the league's most interesting weekend engagement. Sounders' coach Sigi Schmid seems set on lineup upheaval after last week's 4-0 loss at home, an effort so flimsy the club is refunding money to ticket buyers.