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For next World Cup, U.S. soccer will need to balance younger, older players

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By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

After the United States men's soccer team was eliminated by Ghana at the World Cup, the sense of accomplishment for a team that won its group and reached the round of 16 was tempered by thoughts of what could have been. Now, as time begins to lessen the disappointment of the June 26 loss, the question of "what if?" has shifted to "what next?"

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Thoughts have already moved to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and with veterans such as defenders Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo likely out of the picture for the next cycle, and areas on the roster in need of improvement, there are questions about where the U.S. men's team goes from here and what young players might step into the national picture.

"I think the process after any World Cup is to do an assessment and have an idea in terms of the core of the team," U.S. men's soccer Coach Bob Bradley said. "In some cases, guys that have been there will be challenged now to step up and take bigger roles and [then coaches consider] how to . . . start to move some of the players that weren't part of this team but are guys that we think potentially can come in and help as we move through the next cycle. . . . Anything from guys that maybe just missed [the 2010 World Cup roster] but also guys that have been in along the way, to guys we haven't seen yet that have caught our eyes, to guys coming through we've seen with our youth teams. You have a plan for moving forward."

The 2014 World Cup roster will by no means start from scratch. An encouraging core will return for the next cycle of qualifying, which begins in 2012.

Midfielders Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will be 32 and 31, respectively, in four years and will likely remain central figures on the team. Goalkeeper Tim Howard, at 35, will be even more seasoned and likely will remain the starter in net, and defender Oguchi Onyewu might return at age 32.

Young standouts Jozy Altidore, who is only 20 years old, and Michael Bradley, 22, will have another four years of international play in which to grow, and several other players who were part of the South Africa run are 25 or younger -- midfielders Jose Torres, Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber, defenders Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein and forward Robbie Findley. Should forward Charlie Davies, 24, return to form after a car accident, he also would likely factor into roster discussions.

Questions do surround whether Bob Bradley will return as coach. His contract is up in December, and the U.S. Soccer Federation may choose to go in another direction. It is clear, however, that Bradley has not ceded his position and has already begun to develop an idea for the team moving forward.

In preparing for the next cycle, Bradley or any prospective replacement must balance the phasing out of veterans -- who could be the best options in the early rounds of World Cup qualifying but may not project for 2014 -- and the introduction of new faces. It's a process that has occurred for several veterans in past cycles, with older players such as Frankie Hejduk, Kasey Keller, Pablo Mastroeni and Brian Ching playing roles during qualifying but not making the final roster for this year's World Cup.

The U.S. technical staff's biggest challenge, however, will be identifying the young players who are ready to contribute to the senior team, developing those players and projecting where they might be four years down the road.

Bradley said players who were on the U.S. roster for a January training camp and February friendly against El Salvador are good examples of players with potential -- he mentioned Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez and D.C. United forward Chris Pontius as two examples.

Other established younger players in the U.S. player pool -- Sacha Kljestan, Alejandro Bedoya, Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson, Edgar Castillo, Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers -- will also likely continue to factor in, as could Jermaine Jones, who has yet to get a call-up because of injury since deciding to play for the United States instead of Germany, where he was born to a German mother and an American father.

There are several younger players, however, who will have a chance to prove themselves over the next four years -- both domestically and overseas.

Players such as Ike Opara (San Jose Earthquakes), Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls) and Kevin Alston (New England Revolution) have started to work their way up the professional ranks and could factor on the back line.

Teenagers such as Kofi Sarkodie, 19, Gale Agbossoumonde, 18, Sebastian Lletget, 17, and Joseph Gyau, 17, could also have an opportunity to grow and work their way into consideration -- though at such a young age many are considered long shots to make the roster.

"The communication that we have with the different teams, with coaches, coaches in MLS, is all really important," Bob Bradley said. "We're always trying to just get the timing of things right. We may see a player that does well with U-17s and then the question is, is he ready to come into our camp? Is his next step the U-20s? Is the next step now to be in a pro environment and actually be on the field? There are different steps involved and the challenge that always exists is to get the timing right. We have an open mind regardless of age if it's the right time to have a guy in, and at the same time to not rush it if it needs more time."

The U.S. Under-20 national team will participate in the U-20 CONCACAF championships and, should it qualify, the U-20 World Cup in 2011, and Coach Thomas Rongen's roster could be an indicator of things to come, as could the players comprising the U.S. team at the 2012 Olympics.

But for many of the younger players who have shown enough potential to go overseas or sign professionally as teenagers, there are no guarantees as to how they might mature and develop. And Rongen said it is unlikely that more than one or two could actually develop fast enough to make the senior-team roster in 2014.

"There are a lot of talented young players, but they are still unknowns because right now they are not playing reserve or first-team ball for clubs in Europe or here," Rongen said. "It's just speculation where they're going to end up in four years."

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