Pat Noonan seemed to be breaking through the World Cup roster bubble early this year. But as Noonan went to chip a short cross from the right wing during a game in Hamilton, Bermuda, Feb. 22, he fell on the well-manicured playing surface and sustained a right hamstring strain. The injury has slipped Noonan back to the bubble.
On that February night, Noonan was performing for the New England Revolution against LD Alajuelense in the Champions Cup, having just arrived after a successful national team training camp. And "successful" is probably understating it.
This is what coach Bruce Arena said after the U.S. defeated Japan, 3-2, Feb. 10 in San Francisco:
"Pat Noonan, I think, is a terrific player. I really like him, he has a great personality. He's good for our team on the field and off. He's a real winner and a great competitor, as are all the Revolution players.
"Whatever Stevie (Nicol) is doing with them, they're really competitive guys and the kind of players you need to have on the field in international games. Pat, I think, had his best game ever for the national team against Japan. He played well on both sides of the ball. He was involved in one play that set up a goal. He was involved in a bunch of other plays that created goal-scoring opportunities, and, as I said, played well on both sides of the ball. He was a lot more comfortable on the ball and had a very good game against the right-sided Japanese players. He had a super game."
That was about as strong an endorsement as Arena could be expected to give for a player projected as a backup. Among Arena's priorities are team chemistry and having versatile players available, and Noonan received high marks on both counts.
About all Noonan had to do was stay healthy.
Noonan recovered to play 90 minutes in both of the Revolution's first two MLS games, then went 70 minutes for the U.S. in a 1-1 tie against Jamaica April 11 in Cary, N.C., departing at the same time as Revolution teammate Steve Ralston (who has been out since with a left groin strain).
Noonan later felt slight pain in his right hamstring, though not in the same area as previously. But he recovered to perform for the Revolution at Kansas City April 15. By halftime, though, Noonan was off the field and he is listed as questionable for the Revolution-Chicago Fire game Sunday.
Revolution coach Steve Nicol attributed Noonan's injury to "stress."
"He has been going so long," Nicol said. "He reported to the national team Jan. 6 and every day he was trying to make the World Cup squad. He was under pressure every day of the week."
The stress and tension has been building for "bubble" players, but Noonan seldom seems affected. Noonan is among the most stoic performers in the league when confronting injuries or other difficult circumstances. And that disposition and ability to concentrate is reflected in games -- Noonan seldom commits grave errors or squanders easy scoring chances.
"My main focus is on the game this week," Noonan said. "I don't know what my situation is with the national team but I consider myself fortunate to be in the mix. If I go to Germany, it will be a great honor. If I don't, I will look to help the Revs during that stretch when we will be missing some players."
But it is a long way from Berlin to Boston. And Arena's list will have long-range implications for both the bubble and non-bubble players.
But it is remarkable Noonan has progressed to this point, since the U.S. did not come knocking until two years ago. In fact, when Noonan first emerged in the MLS, he was first courted by the Republic of Ireland's "Find Any Irishman'' campaign to stock the national team.
Noonan held out for the U.S., a winning choice since Eire failed to qualify for Germany 2006. Noonan, though, had never been included in national team programs at any level until after his first MLS season, when he scored 12 goals in 31 regular-season and playoff games.
"Nobody knew who I was the first year," Noonan said. "But I had a good start and I started building confidence. That helped me get to the point where I am now. A lot of it is about confidence and playing with good players around you.
"Whether it's playing for the club or the national team, I have fit in well. There have been a lot of good guys who have helped me on the national team, guys like Landon Donovan, Kasey Keller, Brian McBride who have helped me feel a part of the team. They want you to be out there doing your best."
The irony of Noonan's injury situation is that he had been among the most durable players in the league for most of three seasons. Noonan played in 28 games in 2003, then 29 games in 2004. Last year, Noonan had 21 appearances for the Revolution, his time limited mostly because of a callup for the Gold Cup. But the Gold Cup took its toll on Noonan, who for the first time in his professional career appeared truly exhausted.
Noonan was probably near peak form when he chipped a shot from the center circle over Zach Wells in the final seconds of the Revolution's 4-2 win over the MetroStars June 29. Noonan has not converted a goal in MLS play since then, though Arena's estimation of him has grown.
"I think my body was worn down," Noonan said of his injury problems. "This is the first time I have had muscle problems. I had overworked my body. By taking some time off, I have gotten my body back in good shape and worked on my fitness.''
Noonan led the MLS in scoring in 2004, producing 12 goals in the regular season and playoffs, though he was not a first-choice striker on the Revolution. Noonan's ability as an outside midfielder became his ticket to the national team -- he could provide backup on the left or right side of midfield and at striker.
"I have become comfortable on the left side," Noonan said. "I like to take guys on and I have worked on my left foot enough to be able to whip the ball in from there. At the international level, the skill level and fitness level are higher than the MLS. In the MLS, you can take a break sometimes but at the national team level the pace is greater, the play is faster, and you have to be moving constantly. And it's going to be an even higher level at the World Cup."
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPNsoccernet.