U-23 roster far from the finished product
The U.S. U-23 squad on tour in Japan is likely to be very different from the roster that will participate in the Olympics in 2008.
The L.A. Galaxy's Nathan Sturgis got a glimpse of what a busy summer could look like for many U.S. players. He trained and played for three different teams in a month.
"It's kind of difficult switching from team to team, but it's a great opportunity to play with the 20s, the 23s and the Galaxy," said Sturgis, who plays as a central defender for the U-20 and U-23 U.S. squads, but at left back and defensive midfield for the Galaxy.
The U-23s, the latest team for Sturgis, embarked on a two-game tour under the tutelage of interim national team head coach Bob Bradley. If Bradley is in fact replaced at the top post, the Olympic job is the one he will retain regardless of who else is named. If Bradley is appointed U.S. coach permanently, it is likely that the guidance of the U-23 squad will fall to his top assistant, Peter Nowak.
The Olympics were in some ways the first major tournament where U.S. soccer began to make its presence felt on the world scene, with the women winning gold twice, and the men's team reaching the gold-medal round at the 2000 Sydney games.
"Especially in America, the Olympics hold a special meaning," said Julian Valentin, a U-20 defender invited to the training camp in Los Angeles. "It's an honor to be here."
Valentin did not make the final roster for the Japan tour. He joined Will John, Stuart Holden, Nico Colaluca, Chad Barrett and Tally Hall as other camp participants not making the trip out on Friday.
At least they made it to the training camp, however. Bradley had some clubs reject requests for players, most notably Real Salt Lake's Freddy Adu.
"There are guys who aren't here," said Bradley at training camp. "When we're talking about the U-23s, we're talking about the best players who are age-eligible, whether or not we're talking about 17-year-olds or 21-year-olds; we're talking about over time finding out who our best players are."
If anything, the refusal of certain MLS clubs to release important young players may be a preview of the difficulties that might lie ahead for Bradley when trying to pry away players for other tournaments in the summer.
For example, even though L.A. Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas allowed Sturgis and another young player, Quavas Kirk, to participate, he wasn't pleased about it.
"I've no idea why we're doing an Olympic training camp," said Lalas. "I'm never going to stand in the way of our players representing the United States, but considering we have a huge U-20 tournament coming up, to be dealing with the Olympic team and in particular dealing with players who are so crucial to Thomas Rongen's U-20 team, I don't understand it."
Bradley knows that it is standard practice for a club to consider its own interests first. His own young son, Michael, was refused a release by his Dutch club, Heerenveen, to participate in the U-20 CONCACAF qualifying tournament earlier this year.
With those mitigating circumstances, it's difficult to look at the current U-23 group as much of an Olympic preview. The roster is likely to look radically different in 2008.
Still Bradley felt the exercise was worthwhile.
"In the early part of this year, it's good for us to have the opportunity to work with as many players as possible and establish some ideas on how we need to work," he said. "This camp, I think, lays some groundwork. Now we go to Japan and we see, with a couple of games, how we are progressing."
Some players are on an audition for Bradley during this tour, while others have more or less cemented their spots. Analyzing the roster, it's possible to guess the contenders from the pretenders.
This position is one of the likeliest to use an overage player for the Olympics, since goalkeepers peak with experience. That leaves Justin Hughes in the pretender role, especially since he didn't look that confident coming off his line in the team's final training scrimmage. Chris Seitz, however, is a contender despite his youth, a physical presence who doesn't let his athletic gifts make him lazy about positioning.
Sean Franklin and Rob Valentino make up half of the college contingent on this roster, and both will have to impress mightily to prove they are anything more than fill-ins. Hunter Freeman, Patrick Ianni, Tim Ward and Nathan Sturgis are all likely to be 2008 roster candidates and all share notably unflappable temperaments even under heavy physical play. Michael Harrington has more than his share of physical skill to be a top candidate, but his defensive decision-making is still developing.
Again, leadership on the final line is crucial. Bradley could consider a veteran central defender such as Jimmy Conrad worth an overage spot.
This part of the roster could be turned over completely. Michael Bradley, for example, could contend for a spot over one of the current starters such as Sacha Kljestan. Quavas Kirk also will have to be more consistent to make a case for the right midfield spot. Still, both players were a step up from Peter Lowry, Ryan Solle and Arturo Alvarez, who looked undistinguished in scrimmages where the midfield did little to create chances.
Assuming players such as Josmer Altidore will be available and seasoned after more work with coach Bruce Arena, the current attackers on the roster may also find themselves cut in the future. However, if Adam Cristman continues the form he brought into camp, he could be the revelation of the Japan tour. Strong and powerful, he was giving defenders fits during games. Jacob Peterson and Jamie Watson are opportunistic players who will have to add other skills to their arsenal to compete at the international level. Sal Zizzo is an impressively skilled player who still has to show more finishing precision.
The players remain aware that the current squad was far from the finished product.
As Ianni said, "There's still some other guys who I haven't played with who I know will be able to contribute to this team."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.