The change in the calendar year brings about a heightened sense of anticipation ahead of the World Cup in June. Moves in the January transfer window seem to be made more with an eye toward South Africa than in securing professional stability. Those recovering from injury face a race against time to get from the treatment table to the playing field in time to prepare for June.
Some American players -- and by extension, American fans -- find themselves in a state of anxiety this time of year. South Africa suddenly doesn't seem so far away and the opportunities to make an impression are becoming few and far between.
Maurice Edu, for instance, only recently returned to the field for Rangers after a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to injury. He has limited time to force himself back into Rangers' coach Walter Smith's lineup and show U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley he can be the type of box-to-box midfielder the national team lacks at the moment. Similarly, his Rangers teammate DaMarcus Beasley is in equal need of health and opportunity as he sets out to convince Bradley and American fans that a short memory can be a virtue when considering selection for the national team.
For players like Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies, the countdown to June probably feels more like a race against time and the ground both need to cover to get back to full health seems daunting. Onyewu's prognosis has been more positive. It remains to be seen when and if Davies can return to full fitness.
Perhaps no national team member has a more important decision to make than Stuart Holden. A move from the MLS to Europe so close to the World Cup is a tricky proposition. He can feel confident he's done enough to warrant inclusion in Bradley's June roster, but he'll need regular run from now until then if he's to force himself into Bradley's starting 11. He has a lot at stake and a move overseas right now is certainly ambitious. But he also seems to have plenty of good options, and at 24 years old and entering the prime of his career, that's not a bad dilemma to have.
Speaking of options, they seem to be what Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu are running out of. Their loan to Greek club Aris feels more like an exile, a move motivated more by desperation than an attempt to secure their long-term future. But the past couple of years have treated neither player kindly and a guarantee of regular minutes might be the best they can hope for. As it stands, they're likely on the outside looking in on Bradley's World Cup roster.
While these are some of the many developing subplots to keep an eye on from here to June, perhaps the most intriguing storyline is not one involving fringe players looking for a late push or established players on the move. It involves players so obviously entrenched in the national team side you might forget that they too are facing pivotal moments in their careers.
I'm talking of course about Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. I exclude Tim Howard from this discussion because it's rather implausible to think he's going to suffer a major dip in form in the next six months. He offers the best quality a goalkeeper can provide: an excellence that's so consistent it borders on boring.
If recent performances are any indication, Dempsey and Donovan are primed to make major strides in the coming months. Donovan was impressive in his Everton debut, assisting on the opening goal and causing fits for Arsenal's left back Armand Traore in a 2-2 draw. That he was included in the starting 11 with so little preparation time against a team that had previously beaten Everton 6-1 shows the confidence Everton coach David Moyes has in Donovan's ability.
Dempsey, meanwhile, has not only cemented himself in Fulham's starting 11, he's become perhaps its most important player. Tied with Bobby Zamora as the team's leading scorer with six goals, he's at the forefront of much of Fulham's attacking movement. And if his wonder goal against Stoke is any indication, he's developing an appetite for goals that might cause Bradley to rethink his role in the national team side.
In the coming months, it's natural to focus on how the bottom of the national team side will shape up and what players will play their way into a trip to South Africa. But we should keep in mind that it's still the cream of the crop that will determine the U.S. team's fortunes in June. The two best American players are playing and performing well for competitive English sides. The strides they make and the progress they bring to South Africa could be the most interesting development for the national team in the months leading up the World Cup.