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Cup hopes rest on Yanks abroad


More so than in previous World Cups, the U.S.' first team in South Africa this summer will consist almost entirely of foreign-based players. You only need to have seen the U.S. performance against Honduras in January to realize that this team going nowhere with the core of MLS players who fell to los Catrachos 3-1.

Only one MLS player from that game, Jonathan Bornstein, is projected to be the first 14 for the World Cup opener if everyone was healthy -- down from the nine MLS players who beat Portugal in the 2002 opener and five who fell to the Czech Republic four years ago. Bruce Arena took 12 foreign-based players to the World Cup in both '02 and '06. The number of Yanks abroad headed to the World Cup could reach 18 or 19 in 2010.

A rash of injuries to foreign-based players has raised alarm bells in recent weeks about the U.S.' chances at the World Cup. On the positive side, several key players are playing the best soccer of their club careers. In particular, Landon Donovan has been outstanding since joining Everton on loan. Too outstanding, probably.

Any chance England will underestimate the 27-year-old attacker has been shot by Donovan's string of solid performances for Everton. After three failed stays in Europe, he has finally achieved the respect he yearned. It was a coincidence that Donovan joined the Toffees just as they hit their best patch of the season.

But Donovan, playing a free role in midfield like he has done for the U.S. in the last year, has been a key contributor for Everton in the six Premier League games he has played -- wins over Manchester City, Sunderland, Wigan and Chelsea on Wednesday, a tie with Arsenal in his debut and a lone loss to Merseyside rival Liverpool.

Against Chelsea, Donovan assisted on Louis Saha's first goal and was taken down for a penalty that Saha failed to convert. England defenders John Terry and Ashley Cole will certainly vouch for Donovan's abilities.

"That was Landon's best game for us," Everton manager David Moyes said afterward. "But I don't think we'll be able to keep him when his three-month loan expires, unfortunately."

Donovan's reversal of fortune mirrors that of Jozy Altidore who, after a poor first season in Spain and a slow start with Hull City in the EPL, has come on strong this winter. When he sat out two games for compassionate leave following the earthquake that struck his parents' native Haiti, it looked like Altidore, scoreless in his first 14 EPL games, could have been in for another lost season. But he has also been excellent in recent weeks.

Altidore has been real handful for opposing defenders -- drawing a pair of yellow cards in consecutive games against Chelsea and Manchester City. Hull's 1-0 loss at Blackburn on Wednesday was its first defeat since Altidore returned to the lineup.

Then there's U.S. captain, Carlos Bocanegra, who has regained his starting job at French club Rennes. When the January transfer window opened, Bocanegra was mired on the Rennes bench and looked set to join relegation candidate St. Étienne on loan.

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A month later, Bocanegra is still at Rennes, but back in the starting lineup. Rennes played its best game of the season in a 4-2 win over league leader Bordeaux on Saturday. While Bordeaux's Yoan Gouffran gave Bocanegra fits, the Southern Californian had one his best games of the season contributing to the Rennes attack.

If you'd have told Bob Bradley at the beginning of January that Donovan and Altidore would flourish and Bocanegra would regain his form, he'd have settled for that on the U.S. abroad front.

It might have been just enough to keep him from fainting if you also told him that Clint Dempsey would do his knee, DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu would return to the disabled list at Rangers and injuries would set back new European arrivals Ricardo Clark and Stuart Holden.

In the last year, the U.S.' problem area has been its back four. Now it's the front six, where the primary candidates to join Donovan, Altidore and Michael Bradley in the starting lineup on June 12 against England are all injured (Charlie Davies, Dempsey, Beasley and Edu) or suffering from a serious lack of match fitness (Clark and Holden).

Dempsey and Davies, who combined for four of the seven goals in the U.S.' run to the final at the Confederations Cup, are in a race against the clock to be fit for the World Cup. Beasley and Edu both were on the comeback trail at Rangers when they re-injured themselves. Beasley's injury, described by Rangers manager Walter Smith as "an awkward injury anyway at the top of his thigh" is the most worrying. What Beasley hoped to be a three-week layoff has already extended another month.

The good news for Clark and Holden is that they found (short-term) homes in Europe -- never a foregone conclusion -- after leaving the Houston Dynamo as free transfers. The bad news is that they arrived at Bolton Wanderers and Eintracht Frankfurt, respectively, after layoffs of six weeks or longer and both were immediately injured.

Both risk running out of time to regain their form before the end of the European season and failing to make enough of an impression to return to their clubs next season.

The other injured attacker abroad is José Francisco Torres, whose hamstring injury came just as he regained his starting job at Pachuca in Mexico. If the injury keeps him out of the El Salvador game on Feb. 24 and the Netherlands game on March 3, it will be a major blow for the U.S., which could use another midfielder with the different dimensions Torres brings.

We'll have a better idea where the U.S. World Cup hopes stand in the next month. Will Davies return to training at Sochaux? Will Oguchi Onyewu, the key injured American defender, get a chance at AC Milan when he's healthy again?

The best-case scenario is that four of five of the injured Americans abroad are ready to go by mid-March and get two solid months of playing time -- enough time for them to find their form but still short enough to be fresh for the World Cup.

That and nothing happens to Donovan or Altidore in the meantime.