Mired in a labor dispute with the national team players' association, the U.S. Soccer Federation took another step toward sending a replacement squad to Trinidad and Tobago for a World Cup qualifier next month by quietly opening training camp with minor leaguers yesterday.
USSF officials declined to make the roster available, but sources close to the situation, who have been instructed not to discuss the matter publicly, said the group almost entirely comprises players from the U.S. minor league system known as United Soccer Leagues.
Among those believed to have reported to camp in the Los Angeles area are midfielder John Ball, 32, who played briefly with Chicago in MLS in 1999 and has represented the United States on the national indoor team; Minnesota Thunder teammates Joe Warren, 30, Freddy Juarez, 26, and Dustin Branan, 23; and forward Dustin Swinehart, 30, who has played in the USL for many years and is now with second-division Charlotte.
Players from the Richmond, Charleston, S.C., and Rochester, N.Y., franchises likely were also to have reported.
U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said the first practice "went well. There are a lot of issues when you bring a new group together, but we're getting adjusted. It's a capable group."
The USSF and the players association are embroiled in a contract dispute that could jeopardize American hopes of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. The players, who have been without a collective bargaining agreement for two years, declined to report to training camp in December. The USSF postponed the start of another camp this month, as well as a pair of international exhibitions, while negotiations continued.
The USSF has set a Feb. 1 deadline to reach an agreement before it would commit to sending a replacement team to Trinidad and Tobago for the Feb. 9 match -- the first of 10 qualifiers over the next nine months. The Americans are heavily favored to earn one of the region's three automatic berths in the World Cup, but the absence of their top players from MLS and European leagues would make it much more difficult.
"This is our team moving forward," USSF Secretary General Dan Flynn said in a telephone interview from Chicago. "We had to keep clicking through names, but we've got our team. We're confident we can compete for a spot in the World Cup."
Because of the impasse, the USSF could only invite players who have never played for the senior national team or been invited to a training camp. In a show of solidarity with the U.S. veterans, many young MLS players, including D.C. United's Brian Carroll, Bryan Namoff and Troy Perkins, turned down invitations last week.
Sources said Arena met with several USL coaches and general managers during the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in Baltimore last week to build a roster. USL spokesman Gerald Barnhart referred questions about the replacement players to the USSF.
"It's a chance of a lifetime for these guys," one USL team official said, requesting anonymity to avoid upsetting the USSF. "They've really got nothing to lose."
The replacement players will be paid the amount that the USSF has offered in talks with the union, Flynn said.
Players' association chief Mark Levinstein said he didn't want to comment on the opening of training camp with the replacement players. He did say both sides were trying to schedule new talks soon.
The sides appeared close to a deal last week, but Flynn said the union's request for an advance payment of $200,000 helped kill it. Levinstein disputed that claim, saying: "They're so funny. It was not like that at all."