The USA plays the first of its pre-World Cup "send-off series" friendlies against the Czech. Republic tonight at 8PM ET in Hartford, Connecticut.
For a Czech squad that didn't qualify for the World Cup, this friendly is part of a longer period of rebuilding that is focused on qualify for the Euro 2012 championships that will begin next year. Their roster is heavy on younger players and missing some of their bigger names that I recognize, like Thomas Rosicky (Arsenal), Milan Baros (Galatasaray), and David Rozenhal (Hamburg). They lost, 1-2, to Turkey in a friendly at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. on May 22nd. The US will play Turkey on May 29th in its final match before leaving for South Africa. For the US, this game is all about figuring out who will be on the plane to South Africa the next day.
The math is easy to do. Seven of the 30 players that are currently vying for the 23 spots will be checking there luggage for a flight home instead of one to Johannesburg. By June 1st, Bob Bradley must submit his 23 man roster chosen from the 30 man roster that he submitted on May 11th. However, there's a good chance that we won't have to wait that long to find out. The roster should come out sometime after tomorrow's friendly; rumor is that it will be released on Wednesday. The game against Turkey will be our first look at the final squad
Conventional wisdom says that Bradley take eight defenders, eight midfielders, four forwards, and three keepers. That's twice the number of field players in each part of a 4-4-2 setup. Its a little more complicated when you consider players that can fill multiple positions. The final number of defenders, midfielders, and forwards might vary a little bit, but the 2/1 ratio of field players to each position is something that you don't want to stray too far from. Losing a key player to an injury is made even worse when you don't have someone else that can play that position. The roster on Ussoccer.com breaks down the mix of players on the 30 into:
3 Goalies - Brad Guzan, Marcus Hahnemann, Tim Howard
9 Defenders - Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Chad Marshall, Oguchi Onyewu, Heath Pearce, Jonathan Spector
11 Midfielders - DaMarcus Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers, Jose Torres
7 Forwards - Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle, Brian Ching, Clint Dempsey, Robbie Findley, Hercules Gomez, Eddie Johnson
Its a safe bet that all three goalies are going to make the team, so all seven cuts will be coming from field players. Here's my take on which players will make the cut. Players that I think are definite have an asterisk by their name.
Bocanegra*, Onyewu*, Spector*, Cherundolo*, DeMerit*, Bornstein*, Goodson*, Pearce
The defensive conundrum is made a little easier by the fact that several of the shoo-ins are versatile and there are a couple of midfielders that can fill in on defense if they are required to. Some combination of Onyewu, DeMerit, and Bocanegra should be starting for in central defense. We've seen both Maurice Edu (at centerback) and DaMarcus Beasley (at leftback) before in the national team jersey. Bocanegra normally plays at centerback, but we saw him slot in at leftback in the Confederations Cup and he played there all season for his club team, Rennes. Spector has seen time at rightback and leftback for both club and country.
Goodson and Marshall are fighting to be the back up to whatever combination of Bocanegra, DeMerit, and Onyewu is on the field. Neither was that impressive during their starting roles in the Gold Cup last year, but Goodson has always looked more solid and is coming off good season with his team IK Start in Norway and several recent national team appearances. Marshall was out for quite a while with a hamstring injury and hasn't looked back in form yet with Columbus this year. Given what we know, I'll go with Goodson. That leaves Heath Pearce with a role as backup leftback, unless Bradley decides to go with only seven defenders to make more room in the midfield or up top. He's got the versatility to shift players to cover any position if he needs to. I think that with all the defenders that have struggled with injuries lately (Onyewu, Bocanegra, DeMerit, and Goodson), Bradley will play it safe and bring Pearce.
Donovan*, Bradley*, Clark*, Edu*, Feilhaber*, Holden*, Torres*, Beasley
The midfield is where we have the most depth and, thus, the most players fighting for the least number of spots. Donovan and Bradley are definite starters. Unless Bob Bradley changes his formation from what we've saw last year in qualifying and at the Confed Cup, Clark and Edu are vying for the second starting spot in the middle with Feilhaber and Torres in reserve. Given what we saw of him in the Gold Cup and at Bolton, Holden could be starting on the right or as the first off the bench depending on if Dempsey starts up top or on the wing.
That leaves Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers, DaMarcus Beasley, and Alejandro Bedoya trying to fill one remaining slot (again, depending on where you count Dempsey). I like Robbie Rogers (honestly), but he's not going to make it. He had his chance to duke it out with Stuart Holden for a spot on the wings all last year and he came up short. A couple weeks in training camp isn't going to reverse that. Beasley, I think, will make it on his recent return to form and his previous experience at two World Cups. Yes, he looked terrible at the Confed Cup last summer, but he saw some playing time at Rangers this year (when not injured) and pitched in with a couple goals and assists.
If Beasley doesn't make the cut or if Bradley decides to bring an extra midfielder, then I'd add Bedoya. Why Bedoya? He's only gotten two previous call ups, but has looked good in both. I haven't been that impressed with Kljestan's form lately; for the national team or for Chivas USA. Go with the darkhorse candidate. There's a good chance that neither would see the field, anyway.
Dempsey*, Altidore*, Gomez, Buddle
This is the hardest group to call. Altidore is the only true forward that we've got who is a lock to start in that position. Dempsey is considered a midfielder by most, but he was listed as a forward on the US Soccer roster so I'm going to follow that. Either way, he should be starting for us. I would love to see him start up top, but its more likely that Bradley will continue start him on the right. That's why I would take Gomez and Buddle instead of Ching plus one of the those two. With Altidore the only definite starting forward, I would go for a more versatile pair of Buddle and Gomez to compliment him. Ching is a good target forward, but doesn't have the versatility that I want. Buddle has scored goals from all over the place in early goings this year at LA. Gomez was more of a poacher at Puebla, with a number of his goals coming as a late game substitute; a valuable asset if he can that continue that in South Africa. Both of them have the speed that Ching lacks; Buddle has the size, too. Speed is something that Eddie Johnson has, but I haven't been impressed by him since he was at Kansas City. Sorry, Robbie Findley, you haven't done enough this year at Salt Lake to impress me.
The state of several player's fitness could change a lot of this. The past two weeks performances at training camp could sway things considerably, too. Bob Bradley is pretty hush-hush about both those things, so, given what we know right now, I'm pretty confident with those picks. If Bradley thinks that his back line is completely fit, then you could see Pearce dropped to open up another spot up top or in the middle. If Beasley isn't quite back to his old self, Kljestan or Bedoya could supplant him.
The line up against the Czech Republic is tough to call; it could reveal a lot about who the final players to make the roster will be. We'll probably see a number of regular starters rested. With Onyewu not playing a competitive match since the Costa Rica game in October, there's a good chance that he'll go the whole 90, if he's fit. Heath Pearce will probably see some minutes to prove his worth, but I doubt we'll see Chad Marshall. I think its possible that we won't see Dempsey at all. Donavan is so key to our offense, that I see him playing most of the game so that Bradley can evaluate how the different forwards link up with him. The rest of the starting midfield is a toss up, depending on what Bradley is looking for players to prove to him. I'd like to see both Buddle and Gomez get substantial playing time since they haven't had call ups in quite a while. There's a lot more speculation that could be made, but I'm excited to see it play out and get an idea of who's been impressing in training camp.
The game is on ESPN at 8PM ET. I'll be watching it at the Chatham Tap on Mass Ave. in Indianapolis, if you want to join me. Check back here for some post-game analysis.