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With the start of the World Cup less than three weeks away, the state of the U.S. national team can be summed up thus: So many questions, so little time. Alas, the festivities in South Africa wait for no one, so manager Bob Bradley will hope to get some answers when his team faces a decidedly under-strength Czech Republic side in a pre-tournament friendly Tuesday.
It's a match that under normal circumstances would allow Bradley to engage in a bit of fine-tuning, while filling out the last few remaining spots on what will eventually be his 23-man World Cup roster. But with several players in various stages of recovery from injury, as well as the position battles that are still up for grabs, Bradley's decision-making plate looks as though it just passed through an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The first course for Bradley is determining the overall tenor of his starting lineup against the Czechs. Does he stress re-establishing chemistry with his first 11, or does he focus on giving some fringe players a chance to shine?
"It's probably more the second [option] than the first," Bradley told ESPN.com.
That would seem to indicate that a degree of experimentation will take place with regards to the forward line. Brian Ching, Edson Buddle, Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez, and Robbie Findley are all locked in an intense competition to see who will make the final roster, as well as partner presumed starter Jozy Altidore. It might also be a chance to see Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan take a turn or two up top.
|Who will play up front with projected starter Jozy Altidore?|
A similar battle is raging in midfield, where DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya are battling for perhaps one remaining midfield spot.
Injuries are the main issue for the backline. When camp first started, the concern was thought to be limited to defender Oguchi Onyewu, who hasn't played a competitive match in seven months after tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee. Since then it was revealed that Carlos Bocanegra underwent hernia surgery May 5. Jay DeMerit has been hampered by an abdominal strain.
This has created an additional level of uncertainty in a part of the field that has been stable for most of this World Cup cycle. Bocanegra insists that he's been going full out in training the past three days. DeMerit is reportedly making good progress, while Onyewu indicated he's 100 percent.
Of course, if the saga of injured forward Charlie Davies taught us anything, it's that Bradley's assessment is the only one that matters, and while a U.S. Soccer spokesman indicated that all 30 players are available to play, Bradley appears to be proceeding cautiously in getting his injured regulars back on the field in a game situation.
"We've made progress," Bradley said about the injuries. "There are situations that have to be sorted out by next week so you can get to a 23-man roster. In other cases there's guys, for example, Bocanegra we know the time frame of that procedure. And as he comes into this camp, we also now understand the right time frame of moving him along so that every week he's making progress and is ready to go. So again, you get different time frames for [different players and situations]."
Out of that trio of central defenders, the one who seems certain to take the field is Onyewu. Given the domino effect that Onyewu's play will have on Bradley's lineup decisions, Tuesday's performance will have an impact beyond the defender's spot in the lineup. If the AC Milan player is even in the neighborhood of last summer's Confederations Cup form, Bradley can move Bocanegra to left back, with DeMerit sliding into the center of defense. If not, the revolving door that has been the left back position gets opened again, with Jonathan Bornstein, Heath Pearce and even Jonathan Spector set to contend for that spot.
Granted, compared to the major overhaul that the Czech team is going through at the moment, the U.S. looks like a bedrock of stability. It was just four years ago that the Czechs opened their World Cup campaign with a 3-0 hammering of the Americans. Now they find themselves in the role of World Cup spectators. The architect of that victory, midfielder Tomas Rosicky, is out with injury, as is forward Milan Baros. In fact, just four players from the Czechs' 2006 World Cup roster will be present Tuesday.
The Czechs' strength is in midfield, with Bordeaux's Jaroslav Plasil, Anderlecht's Jan Polak, and Sparta Prague's Libor Sionko all providing loads of experience. One would think that their presence will provide a good test for the U.S. midfield, but it wasn't enough to stop the Czechs from being badly outplayed in a 2-1 loss to Turkey last Saturday, although to be fair, Polak and Sionko didn't take the field until the second half.
Just how much additional resistance the Czechs will put up Tuesday remains to be seen, although Bocanegra insists that won't be much of a concern for the Americans. Nor will there be any worries about divulging too many tactical wrinkles to their group stage opponents.
"I think that by now, the teams that we're playing will know pretty much how we play and our tendencies," Bocanegra said via telephone. "For us, it's just important to play well. We don't need to hide anything tactically. We need to play well and worry about our game. In the end, that's what's really going to matter most in the World Cup."
Well, that and getting the team's best players healthy and back on the field.
Additional reporting by Leander Schaerlaeckens and Doug McIntyre.