Coming off a 2007 that provided more questions than answers about where the U.S. national team lies in soccer's international pecking order, coach Bob Bradley knows the defining part of his reign still lies ahead.
With the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa beginning in June, now is the time for Bradley's team to start moving, shaking and clicking into place.
After catching up with the coach at the first training camp of the year, Yahoo! Sports brings you Bradley's First XI – a full team's worth of thoughts and principles that he will try to stick to during 2008.
1. Hit the ground running
Benny Feilhaber's decisive goal in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final set up the U.S.'s 10th win out of 11 games in the early part of last year. Some of those positive vibes were wiped away by the ensuing five-match losing streak, but a solid performance in defeat to Brazil provided the catalyst for away wins in Switzerland and South Africa to end 2007.
"It was definitely encouraging," Bradley said. "Winning tough games away from home is something that is important as you start to think about qualifying. As a team the mentality against Switzerland and South Africa was strong and focused and we have to continue to build on those efforts."
2. Tap into the home-based talent pool
Major League Soccer's increased strength is a bonus for Bradley, as young Americans gain greater exposure to better opposition on a consistent basis. With a further influx of players due to arrive in MLS from Central and South America, the home-based U.S. professionals can gain sophistication and experience from taking on quality imports.
"The league continues to get stronger," Bradley said. "The opportunities for Americans to come into the league, and become professionals, are incredibly important to the national team. MLS has played a huge role and continues to be important. We see that especially during this camp."
3. Rack up the air miles
With the sheer numbers of Americans currently plying their trade in Europe, Bradley sees his fair share of airport lounges and plastic cutlery. However, he is committed to giving all players, even those playing in less well-known leagues such as Denmark and Norway, a chance at selection – as witnessed by his call-up of Jeremiah White for the current camp.
"I guess it is a challenge," Bradley said. "It is a big country and we have a lot of players. There are plusses and minuses but the fact we have many players all over the world is a definite plus. I want the message to be out there that if you are playing well, wherever it is, you will be in our thoughts."
4. Develop Donovan as a leader
Landon Donovan is showing signs that he wants to step up as a leader, especially among the group of MLS-based players. Bradley wants to encourage this further and senses that Donovan is ready for the increased responsibility.
"We have talked about the need to get stronger leadership from some of our more experienced guys," Bradley said. "Landon is one of those and we have asked a lot of him over the past year – certainly we want to continue to challenge him over this next stretch. The sense of team building and setting good examples is important from top to bottom."
5. Push for quality friendlies
Friendly international opponents in 2007 included Denmark, Mexico, Sweden and Brazil, and it is vital that similarly stern tests are arranged for the coming year. It will be slightly tougher this time around due to fewer spare dates in the international calendar as all regions crank up their World Cup qualifying programs.
"Last year's schedule was excellent, with good fixtures, and good away dates," Bradley said. "It is important to play in Europe, and we must try to get the kind of challenges we need to develop the team."
6. Show no fear
Brazil came away from Chicago's Soldier Field on September 9 with a 4-2 victory, but the United States were tied with 20 minutes to go and refused to be overawed by the most skilful team on the planet. That willingness to mix it up with the best must be maintained if the team is to build towards a better World Cup showing in 2010.
"We felt good for sure about the Brazil game," Bradley said. "We did a lot of things well. We were disappointed to be tied after 70 minutes and to lose 4-2, but it was special to play Brazil and all their big guys. It gives everybody a sense that if we play as a team with intelligence and commitment, then we can perform at a high level."
7. Put an early stamp on the campaign
June's two-legged playoff against Barbados or Dominica should result in a routine victory, but the second phase of qualifying in the CONCACAF region could see a politically fascinating showdown with Cuba. Despite the inevitable hype that would surround that game, Bradley's men need to remain focused and lay down a marker for the final group stage.
Said Bradley: "In 12 months time, I would like to be able to say we have continued to make progress as a team, that our group has taken shape – but most of all that we got the results that put us in good shape in terms of qualifying."
8. Keep an eye on the bigger picture
The U.S.'s performance under Bruce Arena at the 2006 World Cup was awful, and painful memories of Germany should be more than enough to guard against any over-confidence or complacency that might creep in. Bradley likes the look of his group of players but knows there is a long way to go before it can reach a level capable of making a real splash.
"Our pool of players is competitive across the board and I am pleased about that," Bradley said. "But we still have a long way to go to get our team at the level that we want to win something big. The development of our players is all important."
9. Set a benchmark for Altidore
Hopes are high for Jozy Altidore as the New York Red Bulls teenager continues to improve in MLS and draw interest from clubs in Europe (especially Real Madrid). Expect to see more of Altidore in the national team picture in 2008, but Bradley knows that, due to Altidore's age (18), his progress must be monitored carefully.
"Like with all young players, there is a learning curve and 2007 was a busy year for Jozy, with the Red Bulls and the Under-20s (World Cup)," Bradley said. "We hope that by having him in a national camp early this year, we can establish what is expected of him every time we come into camp, and that will help him develop."
10. Build competition for places
The opening camp of the year, leading in to the Home Depot Center friendly against Sweden on January 19, offers many MLS players a chance to put their hands up for selection and potentially clinch a regular starting spot. Effort levels have been high during the first week of camp, and that's no surprise given the reward.
"This is a big chance for these guys. This camp gives some opportunities to MLS players and some others who we think have had good years," Bradley said. "They get a chance to come in and show where they are and that helps us understand our pool a little bit better and understand our options going forward."
11. Keep the faith
Amid the constant desire for short-term results, the evolutionary process of a national team must not be forgotten. Bradley is committed to building for the long term, while staying true to the immediate tasks at hand.
"My main method of going about things is to retain a strong belief in building a team from the inside," he said. "I try to make sure I understand the kind of character and trust that you need in order to be successful. We are looking forward confidently. There has been a lot of good work and we feel good about what we are working to achieve."
- Bob Bradley