Domestic Yanks get last chance to impress
What is the point?
That was a common question asked when the U.S. national team first scheduled its February friendly against El Salvador.
At first blush, a friendly outside of a FIFA date, against a minnow like El Salvador, might have seemed pointless for a World Cup team in a World Cup year, but there was a purpose.
The reality was the friendly was scheduled to help the national team pool’s Major League Soccer players train and play at a higher level than their pre-season training camps could provide, while also giving Bob Bradley one more chance to see the prospects on the fringes of his player pool.
After last month’s ugly 3-1 exhibition loss to Honduras, the El Salvador friendly on Wednesday in Tampa suddenly carries much more value.
The Honduras loss was marred by a first-half red card to Jimmy Conrad that effectively ruined the match as a fair platform to judge national team prospects.
Instead of being able to show what they could do under normal circumstances, the team of MLS standouts was left chasing its tail in a match that produced far more questions than answers.
For players such as Robbie Rogers, Sacha Kljestan and Chad Marshall, a good showing versus El Salvador would go a long way toward erasing the overall disappointment from the Honduras match.
A strong showing could also help secure a place on the roster that faces the Netherlands in Amsterdam on March 3rd, a match that will feature all of Bradley’s healthy first-team options.
And a poor showing against El Salvador? It just might be enough to effectively drop a player out of serious World Cup contention.
That’s tough to believe for a player like Kljestan, who a year ago was one of the brightest young stars in the national team pool.
A year ago, Kljestan was in the starting lineup for early Hexagonal qualifiers, including the United States’ victory against Mexico. He was the subject of transfer talk and looked like a safe bet for South Africa.
That was before a disappointing season with Chivas USA as well as some underwhelming performances for the national team.
Now, Kljestan is staring at en ever-growing pool of midfield candidates who are impressing and playing in leagues that are already in-season.
The current camp, and next week’s friendly, may be all Kljestan has left to show he deserves to be back in the mix.
Things aren’t as dire for Rogers, but he has to be feeling added pressure to perform as DaMarcus Beasley returns to health and Freddy Adu begins to find his feet in the Greek League. Rogers failed to impress in the Honduras match, but he was never going to do much for a 10-man USA against Honduras.
The game with El Salvador should be a wide-open affair, and should give Rogers ample opportunity to make an impact. If he does not, he stands a chance of missing out on the trip to the Netherlands, where his professional career began, and he could wind up losing ground he won’t be able to make up in the race for a World Cup place.
Another player who needs to step up is Chad Marshall, who hasn’t quite looked like the intimidating force he was in 2008 for the Columbus Crew.
Yes, he won MLS Defender of the year for a second straight season in 2009, but last year he was far less imposing and effective than he was in the Crew‘s MLS-Cup winning 2008 campaign.
Marshall’s poor outings in last summer’s Gold Cup final and last month’s Honduras loss, coupled with his less than stellar display in the United States’ World Cup qualifying win against El Salvador in September, has to have Bradley concerned.
There was a time when Marshall looked like he would be the first option off the bench behind regular center back starters Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, but that was before Jay DeMerit stepped up and emerged last summer.
A better effort in Tampa could ease some fears about Marshall‘s form, but another sub-par performance could force Marshall down the center back depth chart. Fortunately for Marshall, the options at center back aren’t as plentiful as they are in midfield, leaving him with a greater margin for error.
It might seem odd to have a friendly against El Salvador carrying so much weight, but you don’t have to go far to find evidence that the Cuscatlecos are a worthy opponent.
It’s easy to forget that it was El Salvador that pushed the Americans to the limit both times the teams met in World Cup qualifying last year (a narrow home win and a hard-fought draw in El Salvador). If Bradley’s first-choice squad struggled to deal with the quick and unpredictable Central Americans, then the same team should provide a good measuring stick for Bradley to judge his fringe players by.
Next week’s match won’t have the pressure of qualifying, or the burden of facing an intimidating opponent, but it will carry the weight of World Cup aspirations for several MLS stars who are determined to stay on Bob Bradley’s radar.
Things will get much tougher after Wednesday, with opponents such as the Netherlands, the Czech Repubic and Turkey awaiting before this summer’s World Cup. If players such as Rogers, Kljestan and Marshall can’t prove it against El Salvador, they’ll have only themselves to blame for falling out of the World Cup picture.
DAVIES TAKES NEXT STEP
Just four months ago Charlie Davies soccer career looked to be in jeopardy after a fatal car crash left his body a crumpled mass of broken bones. This week, Charlie Davies returned to France and is expected to resume training with club team FC Sochaux in the coming weeks.
Davies’ comeback is far from complete, but the progress he has made to this point has been nothing short of remarkable. After undergoing multiple surgeries following the car wreck in October that left another passenger dead, Davies has already been running and doing agility drills and he is about to embark on the next step - returning to soccer activities.
Davies is still some ways away from returning to action for FC Sochaux, but his target of an April return should not be ruled out. It remains uncertain how his surgically-repaired bones and joints will respond to the rigors of soccer training, but if the next phase of his recovery goes anywhere near as well as the first four months, Davies have more than enough time to play himself into consideration for a World Cup place.
That mere idea would have been unthinkable four months ago.
FREDDY FINDS FORM
When Freddy Adu joined Greek club Aris FC this winter, his fourth European club in two years, it was seen by some as a last chance to resurrect a once-promising young career. It appears, at least early on, as though Adu’s latest move could be his best.
Adu scored his second goal in as many matches on Wednesday to help Greek club Aris FC post a 3-0 victory against Skoda Xanthi in the Greek Cup quarterfinals.
Adu, who hadn’t scored in two years before scoring last weekend, played on the left flank and impressed with his work rate and touch on the ball. He scored a goal and helped set up another. Above all, Adu showed confidence and a willingness to work.
That is a far cry from the last time many U.S. fans saw Adu, as an out-of-form player yanked from last summer’s Gold Cup group match with Honduras. On that day, Adu looked rusty, slow and uninspired. He followed that poor showing with a failed loan stint with Portuguese club Belenenses that saw him spend another half-season without playing time.
Ives Galarcep is FoxSoccer.com's newest senior writer who will be covering U.S. Soccer and MLS.