By Ridge Mahoney
Coach Bob Bradley has 24 players available for a friendly against Ecuador Sunday in Tampa (noon ET on ESPN2 & Galavision). He won't have all of them at hand for next Wednesday's match against Guatemala in Dallas, and so will have to weigh the importance of sending out the strongest teams he can while also allotting ample playing time to those who need it most.
Of the two foes, Ecuador presents the stiffer test. Imbued with South American flair, it is also a team of pace and grit, as it displayed at the World Cup last summer by disposing Poland on its way to a second-round appearance. Eleven veterans of that team are with the squad in Tampa.
Yet Bradley is faced with a conundrum. He will likely lose three or four of his European-based players after the Ecuador game, thus requiring he rely more on his MLS contingent for the Guatemala game. However, he will have great difficulty prying away his European players for the Copa America, and thus it will be primarily an MLS team that heads down to Venezuela this summer. Theoretically.
Ideally, he could use his MLS-based squad Sunday against Ecuador to give those players a taste of the South American competition they will face in the Copa America and plan on a mainly Euro team for the Gold Cup. The timing (June 6-24) of the Gold Cup would enable the European players to rest for a week or two before going into camp for that tournament, after which they would take another break prior to joining their European club teams.
The sequence of this weeks games is backward for Bradley to match his player pool for the two competitions this summer, and he can't use Watford defender Jay DeMerit for the Ecuador game and perhaps not at all. As one of five uncapped players called into camp, DeMerit has been unable to train. His chance to show what he can do for his country may have to wait.
Bradley brought nine defenders, including DeMerit, into camp. If he wishes, he can field two entirely different back lines, and he stated in a conference call Wednesday he does plan to give both Kasey Keller and Tim Howard time in goal.
So, we could see Howard in goal against Ecuador, with perhaps Jonathan Spector at left back, Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Oneywu in the middle, and Steve Cherundolo at right back. Spector has played right back this past season at West Ham and lined up there against Panama in the final game of the Hexagonal, but played a strong game on the left in a 1-1 tie with Scotland in November, 2005.
He's second choice to Cherundolo, anyway, and Bradley surely wants to get a look at Frank Simek if at all possible.
If Bradley changes his whole defense for Guatemala, it would be: Keller in goal, Heath Pearce at left back, Jimmy Conradand DeMerit in the middle, and Simek at right back. If DeMerit has to miss both games, Spector could move inside, as Bradley mentioned in the conference call. Wade Barrett is the other option at left back.
There will be some mixing and matching in midfield for the two games as well. DaMarcus Beasleyand Clint Dempsey are first choice for the left and right sides, respectively, but without Ricardo Clark (LCL sprain suffered in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup) and Pablo Mastroeni (recovering from knee surgery), the middle is a muddle.
Brian Carroll could conceivably play in both games, and with only Michael Bradley and the uncapped Benny Feilhaber as straightforward options in the center, the Guatemala match could be a good chance to test Justin Mapp.
But if Beasley or Dempsey is called back to Europe after the Ecuador game, Mapp can fill one of the outside slots. Bradley could even move Landon Donovan to midfield to give all of his five forwards significant playing time and experiment with different combinations.
Don't believe for a second what happens in 2007 has little or no effect on 2010. The wins over Denmark and Mexico were nice to get, but now starts the real push.