Camp begins with questions to resolve
PRINCETON, N.J. -- The U.S. World Cup campaign began in earnest Monday, as an almost complete squad took to the slick, manicured grass of Princeton University. The mood was serious on a cloudy mid-60s day, reflecting the slowly accumulating pressure on the U.S. men's national team.
But while the Americans' opening game against England is just 25 days away, they still face several pivotal questions.
1. If not Charlie Davies, then who?
Once the favorite to start alongside Jozy Altidore on the U.S. frontline, Davies was finally ruled out for the World Cup when he wasn't invited to camp. That leaves a huge hole in the lineup, and while there are several options, none are convincing. Head coach Bob Bradley could move either Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey off the wings and up top, but that simply moves the problem. That's why Bradley called in strikers Brian Ching, Eddie Johnson, Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez. Ching is expected to back up Altidore as the target man. Bradley is expected to bring only one other striker, considering Donovan and Dempsey are also options up front and he has to cut seven men from his preliminary 30-man roster by June 1.
Buddle and Gomez didn't become realistic options for the team until recently, due to their respective goal-scoring efforts for the L.A. Galaxy and Mexican team Puebla. "Herculez has come off his season and Edson has started his season very well, so certainly we took notice of that," Bradley said in a jam-packed news conference after practice. "It's good to see now how they'll fit in and play in this stretch."
Bradley was predictably hard to read on the other options. "We feel that Robbie Findley has got some good qualities," he said. "Brian Ching has been out injured but still as a forward brings the kind of qualities of holding the balls under pressure, drawing fouls, bringing guys into the game. Eddie, this last stretch in Greece [with his club team Aris Thessaloniki], has been good."
2. Is Oguchi Onyewu ready? Is everybody else?
Several U.S. players are battling injuries, not least of them defender Onyewu, who is recovering from a very serious injury he sustained to his knee in October.
"He has put himself in contention at the end of the season [with AC Milan]," Bradley said of Onyewu's recovery process. "He was feeling good coming out of regular training sessions so I think we're confident about that."
Also healing, or just about back to form, are goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has a quad strain that limits his kicking; defender Jay DeMerit, who is suffering from an abdominal strain; Johnson, whose hamstring is bothersome; defender Chad Marshall, who contends with the same affliction; and captain and defender Carlos Bocanegra, who also has a strained abdomen. All of the above trained separately from the rest of the team Monday, save for Howard.
3. To perfect or to tinker?
With a week of practices and three more friendlies ahead of him (against the Czech Republic on May 25 and Turkey on May 29, both played in the U.S., and against Australia in South Africa), is Bradley best off getting his starters synched up and into a rhythm? Or does he make use of the opportunity to experiment and try out his bubble players?
"We trust that we've had experience in games together so I don't think that we automatically have to put what you think is your potential starting 11 out there right away in the first training session," said Bradley, who added that he will likely make his cuts after the Czech Republic game. "You have time to assess where different guys are."
"I don't think he's going to be experimenting but you've got to have a balance as well," Bocanegra said. "He needs a chance to see guys and cut down the roster but then also work with the nucleus from his starting lineup."
4. Maurice Edu or Ricardo Clark?
One of the most contested starting spots will most likely be that of second central midfielder, who will line up next to the all-but-guaranteed Michael Bradley in an equally defensive role. The most likely candidates are Edu and Clark, who will use the camp to make their cases.
"Competition is competition, it's not just him," said Clark, alluding to other players capable of playing alongside Bradley. "I feel good. I've been a part of this team in some big tournaments and big games and I've contributed to the success of the team but that doesn't mean I'm not going to have competition in my spot. There are other midfielders in that role."
5. Where to put Bocanegra?
If Onyewu and all the other defenders are healthy, Bradley could be faced with a surplus of central defenders worthy of starting. In addition to Bocanegra, the coach also has DeMerit at his disposal. What then to do with Bocanegra, the captain and one of the most experienced players on the squad? Recently, Bocanegra has spent a lot of time on the left, but that's where Bradley has also used Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce, both of whom are in camp. Bocanegra has been vulnerable there in the past, especially against speedy wingers such as those of England. Having to find a place for your captain is an uncommon problem, but one that will nevertheless have to be solved.
"I don't mind, honestly," says Bocanegra of the choice between the two spots. "It doesn't bother me. I feel comfortable either way."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.