For more evidence that the United States national team program marches inexorably forward, even if the results don't always bear it out, consider this little gem: Saturday's 18-man U.S. roster set to face Poland will consist entirely of players based abroad.
That's never happened before, according to U.S. Soccer. And it really does demonstrate extraordinary progress in the big picture. Consider than just 10 years ago it would have been impossible to fill out an entire 18-man roster without the use of domestically based talent.
Even five years ago an 18-man roster may have been possible, but it might have been fairly flimsy, dependent of some fellows who weren't truly national team caliber players, those still toiling anonymously in Europe's lower tiers.
But the assembly that gathered early in the week to train in Chicago is a representative group, one that can reasonably be expected to more than hold its own against a European middleweight such as Poland.
Brek Shea and Heath Pearce from FC Dallas were in camp earlier this week but have returned to the Texas club for Round 28 of MLS play this weekend. So that leaves an entire roster of European-based talent at Bob Bradley's disposal as the recently re-signed coach begins his second World Cup cycle. (The previous U.S. outing, against Brazil in New York, was more of a curtain call for the World Cup group than a proper launch of the 2014 cycle.)
"The time has been very good and the attitude of the group really is super," Bradley said during a news conference Thursday. "You get a sense of how excited guys are to come back into the national team and catch up with some of their buddies."
The choice to go entirely with players abroad for Saturday's match at historic Soldier Field (8 p.m. ET on Fox Soccer Channel and in Spanish on Galavision) is equal parts strategic and practical. Bradley wanted to avoid disrupting Major League Soccer playoffs races entirely, if possible. So he didn't just decline to select players from teams with something on the line, he didn't even want to disturb the domestic league process by weakening a team facing a playoff-bound side.
So, if you're a Justin Braun fan, perhaps, fret not. Bradley knows all about the promising forward who has done so much this year with precious little support around him this year at Chivas USA. He'll almost surely be involved as the cycle progresses. Same for a couple of the young, MLS-based center backs that we're sure to hear from, such as Los Angeles' Omar Gonzalez and New York rookie standout Tim Ream to name a couple.
But here's the other reason this was a coming inevitability: More and more, the program's most important players perform abroad.
Subtract Landon Donovan from the equation and there are precious few linchpins of the program who earn their living in Major League Soccer now. List the most important figures for the U.S. effort in the coming months and, again, beyond Donovan, you won't be naming anyone currently at an MLS club. Rather, you'd name the likes of Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Tim Howard (Everton), Carlos Bocanegra (Saint-Étienne), Michael Bradley (Borussia Moenchengladbach) and Maurice Edu (Rangers).
What's more, plenty of U.S. players are manning critical roles for some very good sides. Bocanegra's new French club, Saint-Étienne, holds the second spot in France's top division. Edu's Rangers currently share the top spot in the Scotland's Premier League and Steve Cherundolo's Hannover sit third in the German Bundesliga.
They'll need that quality against a Polish side that has enough Bundesliga experience of its own to cause trouble, even if the team has struggled recently under coach Franciszek Smuda. In fact, the Polish side is winless in its last six.
So Smuda's original intent to cultivate a more attack-minded mentality through an aggressive 4-3-3 formation may be devolving into a more conventional 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2. It's important for the side to move in a positive direction before its co-host role for the 2012 European Championships. But it's tricky since these friendlies represent the only shot at improvement; as a co-host, Poland doesn't have to jump the qualifying hoops along with the rest of the European field.
The Poles latest setback was a 2-1 loss to Australia last month in Krakow. Borussia Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski, a promising 22-year-old striker, scored for Poland and looks like the side's danger man of the moment. Dortmund teammate Jakub Blaszczykowski and Cologne's Adam Matuszczyk are other members of a young Polish midfield who figure prominently into Smuda's plan.
While this does begin the next national team cycle for the United States, Bradley said this week that the current focus of preparation is about more than just World Cup qualifying, the front end of which is more than 18 months away. There is also an organization focus on the 2011 Gold Cup, which is priority No. 2 for the coaching staff -- even if it's a distant No. 2.
Either way, getting a couple of new faces into the rotation is important, and there are at least two intriguing figures to begin integrating. None perhaps more so than Jermaine Jones, the Bundesliga vet who is sure to get his first cap either Saturday or next week.
Jones' club side, FC Schalke, is having a rough patch in the Bundesliga. However, that won't stop him from being one of the most-watched men over the coming two matches (Saturday's in Chicago and then in next week's friendly against Colombia in Philadelphia.) The son of an American father and a German mother, he lived in the United States until he was six and then grew up from there in Germany. Jones, 28, is a rangy holding midfielder and forceful tackler who gives Bradley additional options in an area of the field, central midfield, that is already a team strength.
In fact, having one additional figure there could see Bradley tweak his usual 4-4-2, perhaps deploying two defensive midfielders rather than a pair of two-way types. That would allow him to use one attacker behind a striker, forming something that looks closer to a five-man midfield or a 4-4-1-1 arrangement.
Oguchi Onyewu will be another intriguing figure over the next two matches. He was dropped from the U.S. starting lineup after two World Cup matches last summer and isn't playing currently for AC Milan. So, Bradley could help restore some confidence by starting Onyewu, who is now about a full year out on his injury recovery. But that would violate one of the long standing tenets of the U.S. program: that players need to be sharp and fit and getting regular matches for their clubs to be considered for their country.
Using that as the standard, Clarence Goodson (IK Start, Norway) and Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland, Denmark) could get the call at center back.
This weekend may also see Aston Villa reserve Eric Lichaj earn his first cap. The right back (and long throw-in specialist) from Chicago spent one collegiate season at North Carolina before joining fellow Americans Brad Guzan and Brad Friedel at Villa Park in England.