[USA SPOTLIGHT] The U.S. national team starts its run-up to the opening round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying against Scotland Saturday with more players than ever coming off strong seasons in European leagues, which includes a memorable Serie A debut season for midfielder Michael Bradley.
Along with the competitive aspect of preparing for friendlies and qualifiers, there’s a social element as well, as U.S. players leave their clubs to reconvene while they re-focus on international play.
This current camp brings together perhaps the most accomplished seasons ever recorded by a squad of Americans at the same time. The goalscoring prowess of Clint Dempsey (23 goals) and Jozy Altidore (19), the solid campaigns of several players in Germany and Mexico and England, a small yet critical contribution from MLS, and a memorable first season in Italy for Bradley prompts a lot of discussion and conversation of the recent past as well as the immediate future.
“When you get back into camp, one of things guys always enjoy is seeing how their seasons went,” says Bradley, who played 31 matches and scored one goal as Chievo Verona finished 10th in the hotly competitive Serie A. “Just catching up with everybody and enjoying our time off the field as well is something we look forward to.”
As the first U.S. national team player to play regularly in Serie A since Alexi Lalas’ stint with Padova in the mid-1990s, Bradley probably fields more inquiries from most of his fellow players. “Everybody is intrigued, because obviously it’s not loads of Americans have played in Italy,” says Bradley, who at a relatively young age (24) has already played in MLS, Holland, Germany and England.
“Guys are curious,” he says of his move, which went well enough that the Italian press dubbed him “General Bradley” for his confidence and assertiveness in midfield. “They want to know about the quality of the league, the lifestyle and what’s like to live in Italy. It’s an open dialogue with everybody. Guys are curious to know about how things are done at different clubs and what things are like in different places.”
He believes that Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has learned a lot about his players, and vice versa, in the past nine months. After a start of rather rocky results, a four-game winning streak capped by a 1-0 defeat of Italy in Genoa three months ago confirms his impressions that a natural shaking-out process has run its course. To many observers, his performance in that match erased any suspicion that a transition to Klinsmann’s methods from those of his father, former head coachBob Bradley, might be difficult.
“In general, whenever there’s a situation with a new coach there’s a period of where both sides need to get used to each other,” he says. “The coach needs a period to watch and observe and pay attention to trainings, to games, and just figure out who are the guys he wants and who are the guys who can be counted on in tough situations.
“On the flip side, for the players it’s no different. We have to get a feel for what he wants and what the coaches want from us. I think there was a time at beginning where both sides were feeling each other out and what you’ve seen over the past few months is everybody’s more comfortable with things.”
The U.S. schedule approximates that of group play in a major tournament by playing Brazil (Wednesday) and Canada (a week from Sunday) after the Scotland game, and then kicking off the semifinal round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala.
Klinsmann will name his 23-man roster for the sequence of games Friday; there have been 27 players in camp this week. Nearly two years after reaching the round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup and exiting with an overtime loss to Ghana, the new cycle is imminent.
“We’re all excited to be in [camp] and we’re all excited for these friendlies and for qualifying to start,” says Bradley. If we can continue the progress that we’ve made in the past few months, we all feel we’re moving in the right direction and there’s big things ahead of us.
“This is the national team, it doesn’t get any better. We have three big, exciting friendlies and at the end of that we know the real games start. We all know that qualifying’s not easy but it’s time to get going. There’s a lot of hard work ahead but we’re ready to go.”