THE (NOT-SO) USUAL SUSPECTS
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Saturday, March 17, 2007
I'm not sure what to make of Bob Bradley the coach as of yet, but he seems to have finally done something right based on his recent callups for the two games during the FIFA international break.

Though some are familiar faces, it is the new and younger players that should provide the most interesting stories to watch unfold over the next 10 days.

Jay DeMerit at Watford and Frank Simek at Sheffield Wednesday will both be making their first appearance in a United States National Team camp. Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber, two young players who figure to play a part in the near and distant future for the Red, White & Blue, have also been called in.

Heath Pearce from FC Nordsjślland in Denmark received his second callup of the year, and with Bradley favorite Jonathan Bornstein out with a knee injury, this could be the Modesto, California native's opportunity to stake his claim to the left back position.

Of course, being called into a camp is just that - a camp appearance. The onus will fall on players to make the most of the opportunity. With a number of them coming from the European ranks, this will be the first opportunity for Bradley to field an "A" team.

In the two games that Bradley has been in charge, the team has mainly been made up of MLS players and while he has achieved results doing so, they have not included most of the best players available. MLS certainly produces capable players and the two recent victories over Denmark and Mexico show that even if the individual players aren't quite as good as the opponents', the sum of their parts can come away with the win.

For the first time since assuming head coaching responsibilities, Bradley has a two-week international window that has finally allowed him to select Americans plying their trade in Europe.

While Bradley did call in players like Pearce and Danny Califf for the January matchup versus Denmark, neither started and only Pearce saw any significant playing time. The New York-born coach chose to field players that were familiar to him - which included putting Bornstein out of position at left back - for his couple of times in charge.

With what looks to be one of the most talented and exciting group of players in recent memory, the two upcoming friendlies will be an opportunity for the former Chivas coach to put a stamp on the job. Bradley has to know that if he comes away with a win versus Ecuador next Sunday in Florida, he will have a realistic opportunity to head into this summer's Gold Cup with an unblemished record and possibly shed the "interim" from his title.

Bradley is going to have to balance the players who are relatively untested on the international stage such as DeMerit, Feilhaber and Simek with the veterans to the program like Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley and of course stateside based Landon Donovan.

In doing so, Bradley would do well to use the opportunity to address problems that the US has had over recent years, most notably at the right and left back positions. As far back as can be remembered, only Cherundolo has shown to be a fit for either position.

Left back has long been the bane of the US Men's team - Frankie Hedjuk, David Rťgis, Cory Gibbs, Carlos Bocanegra, Bobby Convey and Eddie Lewis are just part of the list of players who have seen significant time at the position. All of them have filled in admirably, most notably Hedjuk in South Korea, but none of them are actually left-footed left backs.

The last time someone suited up at the position for the US who actually was a left back was probably around the time H.R. Puffinstuff and Sigmund the Sea Monster were sharing television time on Saturday mornings.

Pearce seemed to have been a victim of Bradley's play-it-safe policy when, versus Denmark in January, the natural left back was found on the outside looking in and was most certainly left wondering why he had turned down a tryout with Bayer Leverkusen only to be a second half substitute.

The Denmark-based left back will once again have the opportunity to show his mettle with the invitation and demonstrate the importance of having a natural left back actually play there. At almost six feet tall, with ball skills and a cross to match, Pearce is the square peg that fits into the gaping square hole on the USMNT roster.

Among the European players called in for the Ecuador match, none are more deserving of the invitations than DeMerit and Simek.

DeMerit - everyone knows the defender from the heartland's rags-to-riches story by now - has turned a stint with a seventh division club into a starting role with a Premiership side in four years and has played an integral part with his team since signing on two years ago.

Though the Hertfordshire crew are almost certainly bound for demotion this year, Bradley would have to had to have been in a coma to ignore the Green Bay native.

Not only has DeMerit been first choice all year long for Watford, he was tied for the scoring lead until recently - though that says more about his club's inadequacies than his scoring prowess since that lead was two goals.

Nonetheless, the sometime team captain has certainly earned the right to compete for a spot on the national team roster for his play on the field as well as for the experience and seasoning he will bring to the side.

It has appeared that, each week this season, DeMerit has gone up against what seems to be either the best striker going or the next one coming. The defender also played a key role in his team's tooth-and-nail promotion battle last year. When he was finally placed on center stage, he came through with flying colors, scoring an authoritative goal in the first half hour of the playoff final.

DeMerit was one of the few American players whose status did not suffer when his club made a coaching change. Aidy Boothroyd took over at Hertfordshire two years ago and the Watford boss has even tipped DeMerit to be the team's future captain.

The made-for-Hollywood story can only improve with a good showing next week.

Moving on to the iron man category, Simek has started every game but one this season for Sheffield Wednesday With 37 starts, he has nine more than anyone else on his team, which shows the confidence that coach Brian Laws has in him. He has played in over 80 games in the last two years, missing out once with the flu and three times due to yellow card accumulation.

The Wednesday boss is certainly not surprised at the Stars and Stripes callup as he has been singing the St. Louis-born defender's praises all year long, from the consistency and dependability that he brings to his side to his 'ruthlessness in the tackle'.

Also known for once being 'Captain for Life' John Harkes' former team, S6 has traditionally been a top-flight club, though the Owls haven't seen the Premiership since the 1999/2000 season when the club's spending didn't equal success on the field.

Simek is still playing in the toughest second division in Europe for a team that has consistently improved since his arrival to start the 2005/06 season and even has an outsider's chance at promotion this year.

Though Simek will be competing against Cherundolo for playing time, the Sheffield right back practically towers over the 5'6" Germany based player at an even six feet tall and could show himself to be more than just worthy backup.

Another of Bradley's tasks as manager - and it is one that he may not be up for - is choosing the best players based on their performance on the field, not on how long they have been appearing at the senior level.

The next camp will show whether bringing in players like DeMerit, Simek, Feilhaber and Pearce has been a real attempt to see how the new faces stack up against international competition, or whether Bradley is going to stick to his conservative policy and play only the usual suspects.
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