You don’t normally think of intense pressure surrounding international friendlies, but for the fringe players trying to make the U.S. World Cup team, Tuesday night’s match against the Czech Republic (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) will be as pressure-packed a game as some of them will have ever played.
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U.S. coach Bob Bradley is expected to start making his cuts from the 30-man provisional World Cup roster after Tuesday’s match, meaning a good or bad performance against the Czechs could book a trip to South Africa, or send players to their summer vacations or club seasons.
The importance of Tuesday’s friendly goes beyond those on the fringes. It will also help gauge where certain players are in their return from injuries or runs of bad form.
Tuesday's match is the first meeting between the two countries since the Czech Republic defeated the United States 3-0 in the opening match of the 2006 World Cup. Four years later, the Americans are poised to return to the World Cup with a deeper, stronger and younger team, though a more inexperienced team than the one that went winless in 2006.
Here are five key storylines to follow during Tuesday night’s match:
Oguchi Onyewu’s return to action
The U.S. national team center back is expected to play in his first competitive match since suffering a torn patellar tendon last October. There are still serious questions about whether he is fully recovered and this match will offer the first hard evidence of just how far along he’s come, and how far he still has to go. A subplot in this storyline is who Bradley will play alongside Onyewu with Bocanegra coming off sports hernia surgery and Jay DeMerit dealing with an eye issue.
The forward audition
Bob Bradley is looking for some forwards to step up and earn roster spots and the Czech match will separate the contenders from the pretenders. Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle came into camp with plenty of hype and both have impressed. Eddie Johnson and Robbie Findley are looking like the outsiders, though Findley could still get a serious look to show he can be the team’s speed option. With Petr Cech in goal for the Czechs, the American forwards won’t have it easy as they try to earn their ticket to South Africa.
The central midfield battle
Michael Bradley is a lock starter in central midfield, but the race to see who plays alongside him, and who takes up the remaining central midfield roster spots, is wide open. Bob Bradley could sit Michael and give Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu together, which would also free up minutes for the likes of Jose Francisco Torres and Benny Feilhaber to get minutes.
The No. 2 goalkeeper race
Tim Howard is the lock starter in goal, but Marcus Hahnemann and Brad Guzan are firmly entrenched in a battle for the No. 2 spot. Hahnemann is coming off a stellar Premier League season with Wolves and should have the edge. Both he and Guzan could get a half on Tuesday night if Bradley rests Howard.
Sizing up the wings
DaMarcus Beasley has been the talk of training camp, with several players pointing to Beasley as one of the most impressive players in camp. He should get the chance to show off that form against the Czechs. He won’t be alone. Stuart Holden could get the start if Clint Dempsey is rested, while young winger Alejandro Bedoya stands a very good chance of getting a long look.
TRAINING CAMP NOTES
The U.S. team will dress 23 of the 30 players in camp for Tuesday's match, which means some fringe players could see their World Cup dreams dashed before Tuesday’s match. More likely, those seven players who don’t dress will be veterans who will be saved for Saturday’s match with Turkey. A total of six substititions can be used during the match, meaning up to 17 players should see action.
Legendary Boston Celtics star Bill Russell visited the U.S. team during its practice session in East Hartford, Connecticut.
With the growing number of European-based players on the U.S. national team, it becomes much more common to have American players face club teammates. On Tuesday night, U.S. midfielder Ricardo Clark could face off against Czech striker and Eintracht Frankfurt teammate Martin Fenin. The teammates exchanged pleasantries during Monday’s practice sessions.
While post-training shooting and finishing drills can never be used exclusively to try and measure form, there were definitely some players who impressed more than others. Edson Buddle, Heath Pearce, Stuart Holden and Jose Torres shot the ball well, while Eddie Johnson, Jonathan Bornstein, Alejandro Bedoya and Robbie Findley struggled with their shooting.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.