U.S. roster picture still no clearer as Czech Republic game nears

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We still don't have the whole scoop on center back Oguchi Onyewu -- although we discovered that he's a smidge impatient with the ongoing doubts about the state of his knee. We know absolutely nothing about Bradley's plans for Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- although we know that Dempsey's a little confused about fan and media appreciation that can run hot and cold.

We've gathered little about who is pulling ahead in this unpredictable horse race for midfield spots. We do know that an injury situation once teetering on worrisome has gained some stability, even if all the news isn't good.

And we know this: after a few days of camp that have been less than revealing, answers should finally begin to crystallize as Bradley's collection of sure-things and desperate World Cup hopefuls meet the Czech Republic for Tuesday's friendly in East Hartford, Conn.

This exhibition and another four nights later in Philadelphia against Turkey form the hinges of Bradley's training camp, which opened last week in Princeton, N.J. The first few closed workouts have surely guided the U.S. coach -- but nothing will be more revealing than Tuesday proceedings against a worthy mid-level European opponent (albeit one that missed out on a trip to South Africa.)

Past U.S. friendlies at this point weren't menaced by such sharp edges. Under previous FIFA deadlines, the roster choices were long done by this time in 2006. So the only real tension in camp was around starting roles in a couple of places where the pecking order wasn't obvious. In this case, there will be oodles to learn from 90 minutes at Rentschler Field, the 40,000-seat ground that is usually home to Connecticut Huskies football.

"Obviously, there's a lot of added pressure," midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said to reporters. "There's a lot of people who don't know if they are going to make the team. ... It's very important for some guys, well, to be honest for all of us. Whether it's guys who need the games, guys who need to get the formation right, guys that are on the bubble who need to perform individually. So the two games are very important in a lot of different ways."

Bradley stands to glean more Tuesday than just how the pieces are aligning tactically. There's real pressure in this one, even if it's a slightly different variety than players will face in South Africa. The stress for 8-10 guys here is about giving Bradley a reason to put them on that plane. So Bradley can further gauge whether the heaviness will summon something extra from certain players, or whether it will render them more ordinary.

"We have some ideas, for sure, but there are still some decisions that have got to be made," Bradley said to reporters this week of the overall picture.

The coach hasn't said much so far about how he'll approach lineup selections Tuesday. He can lean more toward sure starters or he can devote more minutes to the candidates for spots nearer the bottom of the roster.

One thing is near certain: we'll see a lot of Onyewu. No one needs this match like Bradley's first-choice center back, unseen in a competitive match since he crumpled awkwardly last October in a U.S. qualifier. Onyewu insists that two months of training with AC Milan has restored game readiness. He even seems a little sensitive to suggestions otherwise. But players and managers tell us frequently that nothing reinforces strength, stamina, confidence, accuracy and precision of movement like actual match play. So, which one is it?

Coaches, supporters, media and the England, Slovenian and Algerian scouts sure to be present will learn more Tuesday. They'll see if Onyewu's mobility and decision making under stress is where it needs to be -- nimble enough to deal with Wayne Rooney and the other heavy weapons of England's attack.

No one has said officially, but indications point to a 30-team training camp shedding some size after Tuesday's contest -- perhaps even before it. Things aren't looking good for Eddie Johnson or Chad Marshall; hamstring injuries have limited both so far. As they were tiptoeing the roster margins anyway, they seem like top candidates to be released.

(The 30 men in camp also constitute the official, provisional roster. So in the event a member of the final 23 is injured, the replacement is likely to be lifted from among the other seven. There is precedent as late injuries necessitated 11th hour roster maneuvers before the last two World Cups.)

If Johnson is released, chances rise that one of the late additions to the player pool, in-form strikers Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez, storybook tales waiting to happen, will complete the implausible dream. Two months ago, you wouldn't have wagered a stick of gum that either of these guys would be in World Cup training camp, much less pressing their case and actually seeing their odds of South African arrival increase.

If Johnson is released, five forwards will be left to compete for three or four spots; the number of "natural" strikers en route to South Africa hinges on Bradley's plans for Donovan and Dempsey, nominally midfielders but both capable of filling in at forward too.

Meanwhile, matters in defense seem clearer: Heath Pearce must demonstrate that he deserves a spot. If Pearce has pressed his case sufficiently to this point, Bradley seems likely to put the left back to the test Tuesday. Meanwhile, time is running out for Jay DeMerit to sort out the ongoing vision issues that threaten his place on the final 23.

While these defense and striker situations are tricky little trouble spots, that midfield makeup remains the true cliffhanger. What happens there on Tuesday is anybody's guess.

Twelve midfielders reported to camp and 12 remain, probably competing for eight spots or nine. It's hardly a secret that Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Donovan and Dempsey are the top six. That leaves a whopper of a skirmish to sort out, with Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers and Jose Torres nervously waiting, hopeful for a chance to impress on Tuesday.

One thing we won't necessarily get against Czech Republic is a sneak peak at where Bradley's difference makers will play in South Africa. We all want to know where Dempsey and Donovan will play -- but we also know that national team managers sometimes disguise their true plans during these pre-tourney friendlies.

Dempsey on the left, as he said this week he prefers? Or Dempsey on the right, his assignment for most of qualifying? Or even as a second striker? He may find himself in a spot Tuesday and somewhere else completely on June 12 in Rustenburg.

On those delicious little decisions, we'll all just have to keep waiting.