Whitbread and Holden head the list of uncapped prospects
Since taking over as U.S. national team head coach in January 2007, Bob Bradley has been known to look at a variety of players.
Bradley has used more than 70 players since replacing Bruce Arena as head coach and has handed 31 players their first national team appearance in the process. Whether it is Jozy Altidore, Jose Francisco Torres or Robbie Rogers, Bradley hasn't been afraid to bring young players into the national team mix, but he has been careful to bring them along at the right pace. The result has been a thorough evaluation of the U.S. team's ever-expanding talent pool.
Yet quality prospects still haven't made their first U.S. national team appearance. Several new faces have emerged for consideration, and some could impress Bradley and make their national team debuts in the summer when the U.S. team takes part in the Gold Cup.
With that in mind, here is a look at 11 players who could emerge with their first U.S. national team caps in the coming months:
1. Defender, Zak Whitbread
The last memory U.S. fans have of Whitbread on the national team was when he was part of the U.S. team's unsuccessful bid to qualify for the Olympics in 2004. At that time, Whitbread was a left back prospect who beat out eventual U.S. national team starter Heath Pearce for the role. After that, though, Whitbread fell off the radar after joining English Second Division side Millwall.
Five years later, Whitbread, 25, is one of the hottest prospects in the U.S. pool. He has helped lead Millwall to the brink of promotion to the League Championship, and he is being pursued by several higher-level clubs such as Sunderland and Glasgow Rangers. The 6-foot-2 central defender looks poised to grab the role as the U.S. team's No. 3 central defender behind Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu.
2. Midfielder, Stuart Holden
Perhaps the most surprising name on this list among MLS players, Holden impressed during the 2008 Olympics and seemed destined for a national team appearance, but injuries forced him to miss out on an elusive first national team appearance this past winter.
Holden's creativity, versatility and nose for the goal in central midfield make the 23-year-old a quality prospect, and this year he is Houston's unquestioned playmaker since the departure of Dwayne De Rosario. A debut in the Gold Cup seems likely.
3. Defender, Sean Franklin
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The 2008 MLS rookie of the year is another player who likely would have had an appearance this past winter if he hadn't been injured. The L.A. Galaxy right back is considered one of the league's better young defenders, but he's more athletic than technical and doesn't boast the attacking qualities that Bradley prefers in his fullbacks.
4. Forward, Chris Pontius
No American rookie has seen his stock increase more this MLS season than Pontius, a left-sided forward/midfielder who has been one of the key reasons D.C. United sits in first place in the Eastern Conference. The U.S. national team pool lacks left-footed attackers and forwards, two needs Pontius can fill. Although Bradley may be inclined to wait until the winter to bring Pontius into a camp, the temptation may be too strong to give him a look in the Gold Cup.
"He's got a lot of good qualities. He's smart, tactically advanced, can play a lot of positions," said one former MLS head coach. "He does need to find his niche, though, because you don't want to end up a guy without a real position. Saying that, he's surely done enough to pique some interest based on his early performances in MLS."
5. Goalkeeper, Matt Pickens
The days of an embarrassment of riches in the pool of American goalkeepers have come and gone. Although Tim Howard is one of the world's best, and Brad Guzan looks like a great prospect, the pickings after those two have been slim for American goalkeepers younger than 30.
Enter Pickens, who has returned to MLS after a stint in England. He has had to battle some injuries this season but has looked sharp when playing for the Colorado Rapids. The 6-3 shot-stopper spent some time in national team camps last year when he went looking for a club, and he stands a good chance to be in the mix for a Gold Cup roster spot.
"When you look at young American keepers in the league, he's as good as any of them," one MLS assistant coach said. "When you look at, say, someone like Troy Perkins, who has gotten that look with the national team, I see Pickens being a better option, and if he can play well for Colorado, you have to think he's in the mix."
6. Defender, Geoff Cameron
One of the biggest surprises of 2008, Cameron emerged from obscurity as a late-round draft pick to develop into one of the league's most versatile players. Boasting good size (6-3) and the ability to play anywhere from forward to central defender, Cameron has settled into a central defense role this year for the Dynamo and is a key reason Houston's defense has reverted to its old stingy ways.
Cameron, 23, is another on this list who has been called into U.S. camp previously, only to have injury keep him from getting into a game. As he continues to gain experience on central defense, Cameron's combination of size and skill on the ball will be tough for Bradley to ignore, particularly when he puts together an MLS-heavy Gold Cup roster.
7. Midfielder, Jeff Larentowicz
With central midfield being arguably the deepest position in the U.S. pool, Larentowicz might seem like a long shot to get a look, but he is one of the best and toughest defensive midfielders in MLS and could eventually inherit the role of U.S. midfield hard man from 32-year-old Pablo Mastroeni.
Larentowicz, 25, is in his fifth year with the Revs and is approaching 100 matches played. With Shalrie Joseph playing a more advanced role for New England, Larentowicz is getting more of a chance to show off his ability to command things in central midfield.
"He's a tough guy who is dangerous with his shot," one MLS assistant coach said. "I also think he does a lot of dirty work for Shalrie. I think Shalrie is the best in the league, but Jeff is a tough guy who likes getting stuck into tackles, which is something you need."
8. Midfielder, Sam Cronin
Although Pontius is getting most of the headlines among American MLS rookies, Cronin has quietly established himself as a regular starter for Toronto FC. Boasting good composure, passing touch and a first-class work rate, Cronin has shown the kind of poise that could earn him a national team look at age 22.
"He is a rookie but doesn't play like one, which was probably expected because of his background," one MLS general manager said of Cronin, a four-year starter at Wake Forest. "He's on a good team where he is getting experience, and when you're that mature that young, there's always a chance of getting a look."
9. Midfielder, Colin Clark
It is no secret that the U.S. pool lacks quality left-wing options. Enter Clark, who has been one of the better left wingers in MLS the past two seasons. The 25-year-old delivers a sharp cross and can get up and down the flank well. He already has had the chance to take part in a national team camp, having done so this past fall, and will be on the short list of left-wing options for the Gold Cup.
10. Defender, Tim Ward
As crazy as it might sound to put on this list a player who was out of MLS a year ago, Ward's inclusion here speaks to just how far he has come since signing with Chicago. Ward has stepped in at right back and given the Fire a dangerous and steady presence on the right flank. He also has been used at left back when needed, a position that happens to be his natural one.
When you consider that Bradley drafted Ward back in 2005 with the MetroStars, and considering the lack of options at left back, Ward has to be considered a candidate, especially if he keeps playing as he has for the Fire so far this season.
"He probably needs to improve defensively for the international level, but as far as getting forward, he's capable of making that move," one MLS assistant coach said.
11. Forward, Marcus Tracy
As loaded as the 2008 MLS rookie class has been shown to be, it is easy to forget that Tracy was regarded as the best talent in the class before he chose to pass on MLS to give Europe a try. Tracy joined Danish club Aalborg BK and promptly established himself as a regular sub. The 22-year-old boasts an impressive combination of size and speed and is dangerous in the air. Considering how weak the U.S. pool of forwards is, Tracy could earn a call-up if he has a strong season in Denmark.
"He's interesting because he's so athletic, but he probably still has a quite ways to go, more so tactically," said a former MLS head coach. "He's intriguing and should probably be part of the pool."
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.