Bradley to assess roster depth
The 20 or so best American players won't be there when the U.S men's national team plays El Salvador in Tampa on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic). El Salvador won't be at the World Cup, and likely won't make for a very strong opponent; it came second-to-last in the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying, and while it did give the U.S. two tough games, its motivation for this game will be suspect. Its style doesn't really resemble anybody the U.S. will conceivably be playing in the World Cup either. And none of the U.S. players that are involved are likely to start in South Africa in June. So why should we care about this game? What's the point? What exactly is at stake?
A lot, actually. U.S. coach Bob Bradley's World Cup roster appears far from finalized. There are several spots up for grabs. With room for 23 on the roster, 16 or so appear to be as good as on the plane to South Africa, leaving vacancies for seven others. Most notably, the team will need a third goalkeeper, a central defender, a target man and a speedy striker, cover for right back and an additional winger. One potential job will remain, most probably for one more central defender or an attacking player, depending on the health of those currently injured.
This is not a trivial matter without any bearing on the outcome of the World Cup campaign. A deep bench is not an expendable asset during big tournaments. You'd be hard-pressed to find a team that made the World Cup final -- the point at which a team is no longer riding a hot streak in the single-elimination knockout phases but legit -- that didn't have a deep bench.
The U.S. will most likely begin its official World Cup preparations in the third week of May and, with a little luck, won't see its tournament ending until very late in June. That makes it a month-and-a-half affair; almost twice as long as the MLS playoffs.
The run-up will be lengthy. Practices will be intense. Injuries will follow. And that's discounting those that were injured in the last months of the club season, when wear and tear set in; consider that Landon Donovan won't have had a full offseason of rest since the winter of 2008-09. Some will suffer from an inexplicable drop in form. Some will lose their spots on their club teams, relinquishing their stranglehold on their position with the U.S.
That is all to say that things change. Seasons are long. Today's superstar-in-waiting is tomorrow's dud: Sacha Kljestan, anybody? Yesterday's no-talent castoff could be today's starting center back can anyone say Jay DeMerit? What's more, everybody starts with a clean slate at the World Cup. With performances in qualifiers forgotten and long-since established pecking orders at clubs irrelevant, predicting who will show up big at tournaments like the World Cup is a famously perilous endeavor. Some role players always become critical, as fatigued or underperforming stars languish.
This game will be a final chance to audition U.S.-based contenders (and Clarence Goodson) for the last roster spots. Several of them -- GK Troy Perkins; Ds Goodson, Chad Marshall, Marvell Wynne; M Robbie Rogers; Fs Conor Casey, Brian Ching, Robbie Findley -- are at or near the top of the list of candidates, with Jonathan Bornstein the only one virtually assured of a spot. Several Europe-based players long thought to be out of the running for a World Cup spot -- most notably Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley -- have surged and added luster to their respective World Cup crusades. With this game in the books Thursday, only friendlies with the Netherlands in March and the Czech Republic and Turkey in May will remain. It will then be high time to whip the starting lineup into shape. No garbage time will remain to try out a bench player.
In their only other chance to show their worth, when the U.S. played Honduras on Jan. 23, the U.S.- and Scandinavian-based players didn't impress the coaching staff, and lost 3-1 to boot. "We weren't satisfied because we didn't play well enough against Honduras," Bradley told reporters Saturday. "So now we'll see if this time will be different." Read: For most of those playing Wednesday, it will be now or never.
Like the U.S., El Salvador lost its last game to Honduras, in its final World Cup qualifier on Oct. 14, 2009. Since then, head coach Carlos de los Cobos has taken over at the Chicago Fire. Jose Luis Rugamas was named interim head coach and this will be his first game in charge. El Salvador's squad, which is missing the influential Eliseo Quintanilla, will presumably be motivated only by the prospect of trying to impress its new coach. Rugamas called up only three strikers for this game, odd for a team that scored just 10 goals in 10 games in the last round of qualifying. As such, the U.S. could find itself expending most of its energy breaking down a team that has never won on U.S. soil and will be employing negative tactics, with most of the danger coming from quick striker Rudis Corrales.
There's another reason this game matters. It could be the last match MLS players play for some time, as the prospect of a labor stoppage looms. It's possible that MLS and its players' union still won't have come to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement in time for the March 25 season opener between the Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union. Yet another reason this game is a chance for U.S. fringe players to make a statement to Bradley.
Goalkeepers: Troy Perkins (D.C. United) and Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA); Clarence Goodson (IK Start, Norway); Chad Marshall (Columbus Crew); Heath Pearce (FC Dallas) and Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC)
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake); Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo); Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo); Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders); Eddie Gaven (Columbus Crew); Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA); Dax McCarty (FC Dallas); Chris Pontius (D.C. United) and Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew)
Attackers: Conor Casey (Colorado Rapids); Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo); Jeff Cunningham (FC Dallas) and Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake)
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.