[WORLD CUP COUNTDOWN]The numbers game, the pecking order, guys on the bubble, how many defenders, how many midfielders …. it all makes for great discussion and rampant speculation about which 23 young men U.S. coach Bob Bradley will chose for the 2010 World Cup.
Those young men, however, know that getting swept up in the vortex is perhaps the best way to be tossed aside. For the 20 players eligible to face El Salvador Wednesday in Tampa, Fla. (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, Galavision), it is their last competitive platform to step forward to claim a prize they know will elude most of them.
“There’s a little talk here and there, but mainly, nobody really knows,” says midfielder Kyle Beckerman, whose chances as a center mid are clouded by injuries and uncertain club situations for several players. “There’s a little banter, but everybody is just trying to perform well at the next practice or the next game. Hopefully it goes your way.
“We know some guys will get the call and some won’t. Everybody’s working hard and putting it all out there to show the coaching staff that you’re ready and if the call comes you’ll be able to perform.”
Another chance to perform will be greedily snatched up by those players on the field a month ago at Home Depot Center when the USA, tied with Honduras 0-0, went down a man when a second caution was issued to defender Jimmy Conrad for a foul in the penalty area. Carlos Pavon drilled home the ensuing penalty kick, and a Honduran team pumped up by a buzzing pro-Catrachos crowd rolled to a 3-1 win.
“It was tough,” says Beckerman of falling behind, 3-0, and getting a late consolation goal from defender Clarence Goodson. “I felt right before the red card that they were starting to loosen up. I could feel they had used a lot of energy at the start of the game to keep the crowd involved and to keep the ball.
“It wasn’t going anywhere, it was just possession in their half, so as the game went on I thought eventually it would loosen up more and we’d be able to exploit ‘em. Then the red card came and totally changed the game.”
Goodson was recalled to face El Salvador; the rest of the squad is comprised of MLS players, including Beckerman’s Real Salt Lake teammate Robbie Findley, with whom Beckerman trained last month in Phoenix to escape bitter weather and prepare for the January camp.
Findley also has an outside shot at a World Cup place, and didn’t really help his case against Honduras. How much credit Bradley will give to good performances against a weaker, but potentially troublesome, foe in El Salvador is known only by him.
“The practices are so intense you can’t really look ahead to the game,” says Beckerman. “You just try to do your best in practice and get through that, and by the time you get to the game you feel prepared. You can’t think about those things and put your best foot forward.”
Beckerman says watching the 1990 World Cup on television – he was 8 years old – first inspired him to play for his country, but the lone 1994 match he viewed in person really sent him over the top. At RFK Stadium, near his hometown of Crofton, Md., he watched Saudi Arabia beat Belgium, 1-0, with one of the best goals in the tournament’s history: Saeed Al Owairan’s incredible, veering dribble from well into his own half and shot high into the net.
“The Saudis scored a real nice goal, and it was on our side, we were up near the top, in the nosebleeds,” he says. “Just the whole atmosphere was amazing. That was all I needed."
At 27, he might have another chance in another four years. On the other hand, this might be his best opportunity, and it's a slim one at that. So be it.
"If you get picked [for the World Cup], you get picked. If you don’t, well, you did all you could.”