The U.S. plays the first match of a busy 2009 schedule Saturday when it faces Sweden at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The status of the game is such that, in competitive terms, it ranks low on the list of priorities for Bob Bradley this year. However, after spending three weeks watching training drills, the game is an opportunity for the coach to assess which men might push their way into his World Cup qualifying squad alongside the established European-based players.
I will be watching for a number of things. First, given that he was flown in from Denmark just last Saturday, it seems clear that Michael Parkhurst will play, giving the former New England defender an unexpected opportunity to shine. Can Parkhurst's style, which offers a contrast to Bradley's traditional choice of center back, impress sufficiently to see him used in more important games than the ones in which he has played previously?
On Parkhurst's left is likely to be Jonathan Bornstein. Following the U.S. training camp in January two years ago, the Chivas man appeared to have made the fullback spot his own. However, injuries and a loss of form have since seen him drop behind Heath Pearce on the depth chart. As a better pure soccer player than Pearce, Bornstein can reclaim the starting berth with a consistent run of form.
At the opposite end of the field, I hope Robbie Rogers is given his senior debut. The Columbus winger has bags of ability but, unsurprisingly given his age and (lack of) experience, remains a little immature at times in terms of his on-field decision-making and defensive responsibility. Games such as these are a good opportunity to chart his progress in a position that, with DaMarcus Beasley continuing to ride the bench at Rangers, is one of the more open on Bradley's first-choice team sheet.
And then there are the forwards. A lively debate ensued recently when I said Brian Ching should start against Sweden because he will also play against Mexico. While my view on that topic remains the same, I do agree that, on Saturday, ample playing time should be given to Kenny Cooper and Charlie Davies. Both found the net in qualifiers at the end of last year and showed enough to suggest that, though its younger members still require a little polish, the striking pool is a deep one.
East is a beast
As a fairly uninspiring draft -- which left more questions than answers as to the quality of this year's rookie class -- came and went with little fanfare, fans of three Eastern Conference teams got news that will cheer them ahead of the new season.
While in his hometown of St. Louis, Taylor Twellman pledged his future to New England. The franchise's all-time leading scorer had a terrible 2008, both on and off the field, and ended the year uncertain about his health, following concussion issues that kept him out of the playoffs.
Furthermore, last year Twellman repeatedly expressed a desire to move overseas and was critical of the league for denying him that opportunity. Therefore, hearing him say he was healthy and that he would be "wearing No. 20 for the New England Revolution" was better than any draft pick for Revs' followers.
Meanwhile, a week after securing the services of Claudio Lopez for another season, Kansas City's team-building has continued with the signing of two former fifth-round selections, Davy Arnaud and Jack Jewsbury, to long-term deals. Arnaud is one of the league's better offensive players and rarely gets the credit he deserves, while Jewsbury has developed into a midfielder worthy of a spot in Bob Bradley's current U.S. squad.
Following their side's recent activity, Toronto fans might be the most excited of all those that follow MLS. Though nothing is proven right now, it is generally accepted that Mo Johnston had an excellent draft and the business done in St. Louis, combined with the arrival home of Dwayne De Rosario, makes TFC as strong as it has ever been in its short history.
Well played, young men
Two young players who took different post-college career paths have had exciting weeks that bode well for their futures. However, having both made favorable first impressions, the real work starts now for Steve Zakuani and Mike Grella.
Having secured a Generation adidas contract that will, according to some published reports, pay him an annual salary in the region of $175,000 to $200,000, Zakuani was then charged to earn his money spearheading the forward line of MLS' newest team, Seattle. It is a formidable task to be thrust into an expansion team after years of playing in the league, let alone as a rookie. Seattle fans expecting immediate dividends might need to be patient with the 2009 SuperDraft's No. 1 pick.
Grella was also drafted (by Toronto in the third round), but the former Duke star opted to pursue opportunities overseas. His first, a trial at Leeds United, began with a hat trick in a reserve game Tuesday. From what I heard, opinions within MLS were mixed as to whether he could make it abroad. It looks like the 21-year-old forward has made a good start toward proving his was the right choice.
A thing that made me go hmmm
Do not expect New England to offer Christian Gomez a way out of his Colorado nightmare. The Revolution has no interest in signing the 34-year-old Argentine, even with the Rapids being open to paying a portion of his salary, which will see him earn around $400,000 in 2009. It always seemed a long shot to me that New England would do more than kick the tires on a potential deal for the 2006 MVP and any interest there might have been has now gone.Which leaves Gomez back where he began the offseason: unwanted in Colorado and with few options elsewhere within the league. Chivas is one of the few remaining teams mentioned as a suitor that has not ruled itself out of making a move but, failing that, it looks as though one of MLS' best players in recent years will continue to be on the sidelines for the foreseeable future.