by Neil Morris
In the 62nd minute of play, Fulham’s Clint Dempsey fired a 20-yard strike past Everton goalkeeper and compatriot Tim Howard to become the first American to score 10 goals during a Premier League season. However, Howard’s squad held on for an important 2-1 victory.
Less than 48 hours later, Dempsey and Howard again found themselves on the same field, this time more than 3,700 miles away on the windy, overcast training grounds of WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
This day, however, they are teammates on the United States men’s national team for the first day of training camp in advance of international friendlies against Argentina on March 26 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey and Paraguay in Nashville, Tenn. on March 29.
These friendlies are preparation for the USMNT’s competition in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer, which will be host by the United States. The U.S. will be seeking its fifth Gold Cup title, and with it a berth in the 2013 CONCACAF Confederations Cup in Brazil.
Dempsey and Howard are two veterans on the 24-player roster U.S. head coach Bob Bradley tapped for these March friendlies. Among those not yet in camp: Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Oguchi Onyewu and Maurice Edu. All had matches on Sunday that delayed their travel.
Monday’s opening session, however, was a decidedly low-key, 90-minute event that played out before a handful of local media and U.S. Soccer officials. Joining perennial vets were a smattering of up-and-comers, including Timothy Chandler, an emerging talent for the German side FC Nuremberg, and Tim Ream and 18-year-old Juan Agudelo, teammates on the New York Red Bulls.
The hallmark of any national team is ultimately their performance in World Cup competition. While this USMNT roster is a seasoned, battle-tested group, 12 of the 24 players will be 30 or older by the time the 2014 World Cup rolls around. By comparison, last year’s Italian World Cup team, which was perceived as relatively geriatric, had eight players over 30 years of age.
It is a balancing act to choose the best players for a national team while also developing the talent of tomorrow. Sometimes it can create odd situations. For instance, while Agudelo plays in Major League Soccer and has already been capped twice for the USMNT, he and Chandler (who was born and raised in Germany and speaks little English) were kept off-limits from the media during Monday’s training session.
The pace and degree of that development also depends a lot on who you ask.
“You want to make the best team you can, regardless of age,” says Dempsey. “As long as players are fit and playing well, you pick those players...who are going to make a difference for your team, whether they’re new faces or the old ones.”
“I think there’s two sides to it,” says 23-year-old midfielder Michael Bradley, an emerging star who contributed tremendously during last year’s World Cup.
“The first part is that the dynamic on every team is different. I think there’s plenty of examples of teams over the years that are a little bit older and more experienced, and people almost view that as a negative. But, in the end, they’re able to use that to their advantage,” said Bradley, who is the son of the U.S. coach, Bob Bradley.
“The other side is, obviously, you want to have guys who are young and bring a different kind of mentality and desire. Over the past four years, we’ve done a good job of balancing that. When you look out here today, there are quite a few newer, younger guys.”
Howard specifically cited Agudelo, Ream and Teal Bunbury of Sporting Kansas City (not a member of this week’s roster) among the talented fresh faces he has seen.
“But,” says Howard, “I think it’s important for those guys to get their heads down, not believe the hype and keep working. The guys who come in and are a flash in the pan are a dime a dozen.”
As the head of the national team, Bob Bradley understands the delicate process he must follow.
“You have to always have an eye on the next World Cup, but you also have to have an eye on the short-term. Given the importance of the Gold Cup, we had to think about what our best team can be. And, then we try to find a good balance where we’re bringing young players in with the hope that they’ll continue to progress.
“Some of the veteran players continue to be motivated to continue their careers, and that includes with the national team,” says Bradley.
“A great example of someone who is having a great season—although not here in this camp because of a slight groin injury—is Steve Cherundolo. Hannover’s had a great season and he’s played really well. So, it’s important to makes sure that respect is shown to those veterans. It’s a balancing act.”
One of the young players named to this week’s roster but not in camp is Stuart Holden, who suffered a severe knee injury Saturday when he was tackled harshly by Manchester United’s Jonny Evans. The injury could keep the Bolton midfielder out of action for six months.
“[Stuart’s] a player we see as an important part of our team,” says Bradley. “We were looking forward to having him with us, so this is a setback. In the past, he’s shown the mentality to fight through these sort of things, and he knows that we’re all behind him.”
After this international break, the conclusion of the club soccer season awaits most of the players on this week’s roster, including Howard, Dempsey, West Ham’s Jonathan Spector and Michael Bradley.
“It’s good for me to be at a new club and environment,” says Bradley, who is under contract with the German side Borussia Mönchengladbach but is on loan to England’s struggling Aston Villa through the end of the season.
“Obviously, the results lately haven’t been exactly what we’ve wanted, but that’s part of it and we all realize that. Now, moving forward into these last eight games of the season we all know what’s at stake and what we need to do.”
Howard looks forward to a successful finale to Everton’s Premier League season.
“Strangely enough, it’s been a little bit of an up-and-down season,” says Howard. “But, we’ve slowly found a little bit of form and are right where we need to be. We need a few more wins, but we have the quality and the schedule to do that.”
As for Dempsey, he finds Fulham in the odd position of sitting 12th in the Premiership table but only three points above relegation.
“When I first got over there [England], I dealt with a relegation battle my first two years,” says Dempsey.
“Safety is about 40-42 points and right now we’re at 35. We still have four home games left, so you’d think we could get seven points out of that.
“It gets stressful, but that’s the way it is. That’s what makes the league so exciting. Every game matters.”
Training continues at WakeMed Soccer Park Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday will also provide an opportunity to view a USMNT training session for groups of the official U.S. Soccer Supporters Club, various academy coaches and Carolina RailHawks season ticket holders.