In the next few days, names of players summoned by U.S. coach Bob Bradley for the next two CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers will begin to leak out, with the inclusion or lack thereof of Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson and Kenny Cooper drawing the most interest.
Since the qualifying results, somewhat surprisingly, have left advancement all but assured, one might dream that Bradley will be inventive, perhaps using an all-Euro team to swat aside Cuba at RFK Stadium on Oct. 11 to clinch a Hexagonal spot, then release the European-based players and field an all-MLS team, or nearly so, in Port of Spain four days later to play Trinidad & Tobago.
Ludicrous? Not necessarily. The MLS players would thus not miss crucial league matches and the Europeans, whose schedules are free because of the FIFA international fixture window, would get back to their clubs in plenty of time to recover and ramp up to speed for the next weekend of league play. Playing midweek in the Caribbean gives them only two days to fly back to Europe, overcome jet lag and wake up alert and ready to go on Saturday.
Five years ago, at the 2003 Confederations Cup, then coach Bruce Arena split his 23 players into nearly disparate squads. A compressed schedule of three games in five days more or less forced his hand. Bradley will be taking the Americans to the 2009 version next June; the schedule has yet to be set, and Bradley will also have to consider what to do with the Gold Cup, which follows right on the heels of the Confederations Cup.
This is a trickier setup than last year, when the Copa America fell right after the Gold Cup. Since both the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup are official competitions, clubs are obligated to release players for both events. Theoretically. Will many do so willingly? Hah!
Since no one but Bradley has a real sense of how European-based players are faring with their clubs -- not just in competitive play but also on the training field and in the locker room and, sometimes, the manager's office -- the recurrent carping from certain quarters about Adu, Altidore, Charlie Davies, Benny Feilhaber, Sal Zizzo, etc., etc., really is nothing more than wails in the wilderness, primal screams of self-gratification.
Sad to say, Johnson keeps getting called up partially because his club, Fulham, isn't at all reluctant to let him go. "A massive disappointment" is how club officials rated his performance last spring as Fulham miraculously avoided relegation, and his loan to Cardiff City hasn't upended the English game, either. His inclusion for the first three CONCACAF qualifiers has unleashed a deluge of criticism aimed at him as well as Bradley.
But one could make the case that with a fitter, sharper DaMarcus Beasley, for example, or a tuned-in Landon Donovan -- regardless of tactics or formation or selection controversies -- the Americans would have dazzled more in their first three qualifiers. They won all three games playing either lackluster or lousy soccer much of the time, and didn't concede a goal. So what's the problem?
Did Johnson play a rather tepid 23 minutes against T&T three weeks ago? Most assuredly. Has he cost the Americans any points in the standings? Zero, at last count. So, again, what's the problem? Beating up on CONCACAF teams four years ago got everybody excited but didn't turn him into Fernando Torres, did it?
Can Bradley realistically be accused of stymieing the development of Adu, Altidore, Davies, et al., by not playing them against Cuba or Guatemala? Please. Are they more likely to conquer in South Africa if they run rampant at RFK next week? OK, if you say so.
For the tougher Hexagonal games next year, they'll be called, as will the MLS guys. Next summer, just about everyone will be needed in some capacity.
A fair number of critics are already set to flunk Bradley as national team coach, but for all intents and purposes, he faces only two real tests: a Confederations Cup midterm next June and the World Cup final exam a year after that.
The scenario is much the same for the players, aside perhaps from tough trips to Mexico City and San Jose, Costa Rica. The difference is that Bradley decides who will be seated in the classroom.
Rolling out Adu and Altidore and the rest at every U.S. game will tickle some cockles, but sticking with their clubs is best for them, at least until the CONCACAF road gets steeper.