A CRUCIAL JANUARY CAMP
Usually the annual January camp for the US national team is a routine exercise featuring mostly fringe players and it is generally of little importance. This year, however, could be the most important winter camp that the national team has ever had.
The injuries and loss of form from several players once considered favorites to make the final World Cup roster have left the door wide open for others. The friendlies against Honduras and El Salvador will allow some of these players to make a legitimate claim towards earning a roster spot on the USMNT's World Cup roster.
The most interesting and significant development to follow in these two upcoming games is at forward. The obvious injury to Charlie Davies and the uncertain status of Clint Dempsey have created genuine doubt as to where the goals will come from in this summer's tournament.
Jozy Altidore remains a lock at forward for the US team after a successful 2009. Head coach Bob Bradley will also probably take one of his two target forward options in either Brian Ching or Connor Casey. If Bob Bradley wants to take four forwards to South Africa, two spots remain wide open.
The other options at forward have not been successful so far. 1860 Munich forward Kenny Cooper has been out a long time with a knee injury and Marcus Tracy left January camp because he is suffering from tendinitis in both of his knees. Eddie Johnson is finally looking to revive his faltering career in Greece but his performance in last November's friendlies were dismal and it's quite likely Bob Bradley has seen enough.
So these two winter friendlies will provide a great opportunity for a few players to emerge and possibly become an important part of the team. Robbie Findley, Jeff Cunningham, and perhaps even the young Chris Pontius will get a great opportunity to make a case and show Bradley they can help the US team with goal scoring.
The most interesting option is Robbie Findley. The speedy forward from Real Salt Lake is not a perfect fit like Davies had been, but he could be a solution to give the US much needed pace and hustle. A solid performance by Findley could make Bob Bradley want to experiment with an Altidore-Findley pairing at forward against the Dutch in the important friendly that will be one of the last times the US will be able to play their best players together before naming the World Cup team.
The other forward option is Jeff Cunningham who, at age 33, scored his first international goal in a friendly against Denmark last November. His strike ratio of 23 goals in 28 games last year for FC Dallas certainly gives him a significant shot to earn a spot on the World Cup roster. However the fact that prior to last season, he was a MLS journeyman who never capitalized on his national team appearances while in his prime suggesting that last season could have been simply a good year and not the norm.
Another player who could be very significant over these two games is Columbus Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers. Rogers, 22, has long been considered an up and coming player for the national team and a few solid outings late in 2009 have put him on the verge of being a favorite to make the World Cup team. He is also one of the few effective natural wingers the US team has in its player pool.
This camp will be extremely important for Rogers to establish himself because he is currently in a roster battle with DaMarcus Beasley. After a very difficult 2009 where he fell out of favor with both the Rangers and the US team, Beasley is quickly regaining his old form. With Clint Dempsey now being injured for a long period of time, the importance of having additional wingers on the team is enhanced. An effective series of games this winter from Rogers could see him earn an increased role on the US team this summer. Poor outings, on the other hand could see him fail to make the trip to South Africa.
The position of centerback is another hole on the US team that may look to be filled over the games this January and February. First team starter Oguchi Onyewu is still looking to comeback from an injury he suffered in October. But even when he does, it is unclear how much playing time he will get from AC Milan once he is cleared to play.
Bob Bradley can be expected to take four centerbacks, possibly five if Onyewu doesn't play much the rest of this season, to South Africa. This also does not include Carlos Bocanegra who is likely to see time at left-back due to his success there at the Confederations Cup nor does it include Jonathan Spector who did not impress at centerback against Denmark and will probably just be a right or left-back. With Jay Demerit and Onyewu being the only true locks, the competition at centerback this winter will be fierce.
In US camp this winter, Clarence Goodson, Geoff Cameron, Jimmy Conrad and Chad Marshall are all involved in a competition where one but possibly two of them could make the World Cup team with strong performances.
Of these four, Chad Marshall probably has an edge given Bob Bradley's tendency last fall to name Marshall to World Cup Qualifying rosters once Danny Califf fell out of favor. But Marshall is frequently injured and that could further open the door for the veteran Conrad or the frequent national team backup, Goodson. Cameron is coming off a very strong MLS season and he would have to clearly dominate to make the World Cup roster having never been capped.
This January camp along with the February friendly against El Salvador will certainly play a huge role towards building the national team for the 2010 World Cup. It is very possible that up to six or seven roster spots could be determined on the basis of this camp.
While it is not optimal that so many roster spots come down to battles among inexperienced internationals this late in the cycle, injuries have made that the case this year. Very few national teams are able to hold extended camps in the winter months and US Soccer and its fans should feel fortunate that the sometimes overlooked January camp is providing a key opportunity to fill some holes that have suddenly emerged in the months leading up to the World Cup.