Welcome to the big time
PHILADELPHIA -- As of Tuesday night, two more men will be able to say they played for the U.S. men's national team. And as of Tuesday night, coach Bob Bradley will count two more players who could fill glaring gaps on the team as the next World Cup cycle begins.
"I think there's a good chance that both will get an opportunity to play," Bradley told ESPN.com on Monday, which is about as close to a guarantee as the guarded coach will ever give.
Both players are graduates of the U.S. Academy in Bradenton, Fla., saw significant action for the U-17 and U-20 teams, and had been invited to a U.S. practice in the past two years. "They are young players that we have been tracking and both have moved themselves along. Now we have an opportunity to hopefully get them on the field," said Bradley.
Between now and the 2014 World Cup, Lichaj (pronounced LEE-high) could become a serious contender to start in either wing back spot. "I'd rather be a right back but I can play left back as well," the 21-year-old said after Monday's practice. "Right is probably my natural position."
While the U.S. appears to have a successor to 31-year-old right back Steve Cherundolo in Jonathan Spector, the left back position has been a problem area for years. That might make Lichaj an appealing option. But by his own admission, he would need to improve his left foot.
At 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds, Lichaj -- whose club team is Aston Villa in England -- is sizable for a wing back and is said to be strong, quick and effective going forward.
"He's a good player," said Spector. "You can see why Villa picked him up and re-signed him. He certainly has a good work ethic and he's shown that in the camp."
That said, Lichaj's exposure at the highest level of competition is limited. He has played for Aston Villa of the English Premier League since leaving the University of North Carolina in 2007 after a freshman season in which he broke his left foot. A broken right foot, a year with the reserves and successful loan stints to lower-league teams have brought Lichaj to the cusp of a starting spot in Villa's first team. But while he has appeared in the Europa League and the League Cup, he has yet to make his EPL debut.
As for Shea, 20, he will be remembered for his look if nothing else. His blond mop has appeared in many different forms: in cornrows, cropped, spiky, in a diagonal fop and, currently, long and held back by a string.
Hair aside, the skinny on the 6-foot-3 Shea is that he's versatile, strong and fast. While his tactical knowledge is said to be limited, Shea's technique is solid. He demonstrated a good shot with both his preferred left foot and right foot in practice on Monday.
"He's a strong player, a tall guy," said Clint Dempsey. "He has pace, he's confident and he'll go at people. He's someone who looks like he can cause problems on set pieces and he's also a player that is quick and can take players one-on-one, help on the attack and cause problems for his opponents. All he needs is more games at higher levels to push him that extra step so he can try to fight for a starting spot on the team."
Indeed, even Shea was surprised by his inclusion into a national side made up almost entirely of Europe-based players. Shea plays for FC Dallas.
"When I got called in, I was thinking maybe it was a bunch of MLS guys [that I'd be playing with]," said Shea. "But I see that it's a pretty solid squad."
If he convinces Tuesday night and in any other chance he gets, Shea's most likely role will be as a left winger. He's more the type to run at defenders than to hug the sideline and hit crosses into the box. And if Shea impresses Bradley and the coaching staff, he could help free up Landon Donovan to play a role behind a lone striker.
"I've been playing outside left," said Shea. "A lot of players play center mid and I think I'm going to bring good width to the team. I think I'll do very well at that. Out on the left is where they've been playing me in the little [practice] games so I feel like in the big game I'll be out left."
That big game will not only offer a verdict on the highly regarded prospect, but also prove a point to Shea's mother. A health professor at Texas A&M, Shea's mom has been skeptical about her son's career choice. "My dad was all for it because he loves soccer," said Shea. "My mom at first was kind of upset, but now she's seen how well I've done and knows that I can go back to school any time."
School will have to wait, because Shea, like Lichaj, is about to become a national team player.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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