So, by extension, the looming Gold Cup roster selection is critical, too. The announcement will land on or close to May 23, according to U.S. Soccer. (The same selections will also have a tuneup against Spain on June 4, three days before the U.S. opens the tournament against Canada.) Let the speculation begin ...
Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, David Yelldell.
Howard remains the undisputed No. 1, so not much to debate there. Hahnemann provides solid backup. The real choice is at No. 3, a position highly unlikely to see action. Yelldell and Dominic Cervi make sense because they are in the offseason and need closer inspection over a longer period. Brad Guzan, getting married this summer, is unavailable. FYI: Teams are required to carry three goalkeepers.
Defenders (8): Carlos Bocanegra, Timothy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Eric Lichaj, Heath Pearce, Tim Ream, Zak Whitbread.
There are tough choices at center back, where Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson are also considerations. The glaring absence here is Oguchi Onyewu, who hasn't played well in the national team shirt since his October 2009 injury. Bradley keeps trying to jump-start the big man by bringing him into these camps -- but it's not working. Besides, Onyewu would struggle to track and match Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez in a likely Mexican matchup.
It's time to blood some new talent, like Whitbread, who will presumably follow Norwich into the Premier League next year. DeMerit, just returning to Vancouver's lineup after injury, hasn't played extensively since last year's World Cup. But his experience would count, especially if Onyewu isn't around. Chandler's bonus value is that he recently showed he can be a dandy right-sided midfielder at this level. Finally, Lichaj finished his loan spell at Leeds playing left back, so he's worth a look-see there; that position is always such a trouble spot anyway.
Midfielders (9): Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Jeff Larentowicz, Brek Shea.
The team will need three holding midfielders, minimum, assuming the 4-2-3-1 experiment moves forward. Plus, the tournmanet could include seven matches over 19 days (a contest roughly every third day for more than two weeks) if the U.S. makes the final. So Bradley, Edu and Jones all will get their minutes with Larentowicz providing additional cover. Feilhaber and Kljestan can play centrally, depending on the arrangement.
Shea is a wild card, considering his age (20) and lack of experience. But he adds an explosive element out of midfield, something missing when Donovan and Dempsey aren't on the field. (Valuable as they are, they can't play every minute). Plus, Shea is enjoying a good run with FC Dallas, and he's surely shed all those butterflies from his recent U.S. debut.
Forwards (3): Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore and Teal Bunbury.
Charlie Davies is now a stronger blip on Bob Bradley's radar, but he just hasn't demonstrated that he's up for this level again. No, CONCACAF competition isn't world class, but at the top end it's better than MLS. (Three of his six MLS goals are from the penalty spot, while two others were more serendipity than smooth skill, right-place-right-time put-aways.) Bradley was in Washington, D.C., last weekend to see Davies in person and a good night could have pushed the recovering striker over the top. As it is, a strained hamstring probably crossed Davies off Gold Cup consideration for good. For so many U.S. supporters, there is an emotional pull to this story. But Bradley doesn't have the luxury of turning emotions and feel-good stories into roster spots. Davies has to work off the ball and get back to doing the little things he did before the devastating car crash.
Eddie Johnson and Edson Buddle will be considerations -- and the call would probably assist Johnson, who is out of contract this summer. But do those names really excite anyone? Oh, and before anyone starts making noise about recent hat trick hero Will Bruin, please remember this: His big trio came against a disheveled D.C. United's defense. Bruin isn't there yet.
Goalkeepers (3): Howard, Marcus Hahnemann and Nick Rimando.
Bradley certainly covets the extra cover that Hahnemann and all his experience provides. By going with an MLS man at No. 3, he'll miss the chance to nurse along a younger player (Yelldell or Cervi), but that's a strategic choice. He seems likely to pick one from MLS, perhaps Rimando or possibly Kevin Hartman, but then release them for league matches to avoid disrupting club matters.
Defenders (9): Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein, Chandler, Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Lichaj, Oguchi Onyewu, Ream and Jonathan Spector.
This is where Bradley's effort to take the Gold Cup at all costs will most affect roster choices. That's why the coach will probably lean on more familiar, experienced players like Bornstein, Onyewu and Spector; never mind that Bornstein hasn't started lately for Tigres or that Onyewu has been playing at left back for his Dutch side. It's the "devil you know" philosophy.
Midfielders (8): Alejandro Bedoya, Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, Edu, Feilhaber, Jones, Kljestan.
Michael Bradley isn't playing much for Aston Villa, but his body of work and performance in the most recent match more than justifies inclusion. (And, please, can we finally stop running the dubious nepotism flag up the pole? That's so 2009.) Feilhaber's status as a new man at New England won't obstruct his selection. If he were trying to earn a spot at some new address, it might. But in this case his place with the Revolution is secure, so he'll be Gold Cup-ing.
Bedoya is yet to shine in the U.S. shirt, but Bradley likes the young midfielder's potential. Mikkel Diskeruud is the question mark here. Coaches haven't seemed to settle on where "Mixx" fits in the big picture, and this probably isn't the place for ongoing experimentation. Still, he's in the mix, so to speak.
Forwards (3): Agudelo, Altidore, Bunbury.
U.S. Soccer still seeks to insulate Agudelo from too many expectations. But his body of work with the U.S. certainly proves he deserves further opportunity. Edson Buddle remains on the radar, but the FC Ingolstadt (2 Bundesliga) striker may need a break; he hasn't had an extended period of down time in more than 18 months. Herculez Gomez could get a call if Bradley opts for a fourth striker after a nice run to finish up at Pachuca. That seems unlikely, however, given the usual U.S. pattern of shifting Dempsey to striker in a second-half change of pace.