The thinking behind U.S.'s World Cup roster
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Twenty-three smiling faces were paraded before television cameras on Wednesday with 23 dreams fulfilled and 23 players who shoulder the hopes of the United States' World Cup campaign.
Yet as head coach Bob Bradley unveiled the group of men who have earned his trust for a South African adventure this summer, seven players were nursing broken hearts, having come to the cusp of the greatest show in soccer only to have their ticket snatched away at the last moment.
Bradley had three tough decisions to make before announcing his final roster. They were the last steps in a juggling act in which he tried to maximize strength and limit weakness in the same motion.
Let's take a look at the key areas behind Bradley's process of elimination, which ended with the announcement of the squad charged with taking on the world's best.
The need for speed: Robbie Findley … in
Heading into the team's training camp in Princeton last week, and even by the end of it, Findley looked very much like a man who would be left at home. The Real Salt Lake forward was unimpressive in the opening weeks of the Major League Soccer campaign and was thought by many to be one of the first names on the chopping block.
With Charlie Davies having failed to complete his remarkable recovery from a car crash in time for the tournament, however, Findley remained the only player with Davies-like explosive pace. Despite Findley's poor showing in Team USA's road friendly against the Netherlands, Bradley wanted to have the option of testing slower teams such as Slovenia with lightning speed.
Challenging Findley to match Davies' skill and ball control is asking a lot, though.
The Ching thing: Brian Ching out, Edson Buddle in
Ching, the Houston Dynamo striker, would have been a lock if not for serious concerns about his overall fitness and ability to last through the entire tournament after a troubling hamstring injury. Even up until Wednesday morning, the 32-year-old was on most people's predicted roster and looked set to be given the chance to make up for 2006, when he went to Germany but did not play.
However, the doubts over him paved the way for Buddle, the Los Angeles Galaxy man who forced his way into the mix with a magnificent start to the MLS campaign. Buddle showed strength and determination against the Czechs in Tuesday's friendly and convinced Bradley he has what it takes to be a valuable member of the squad.
U.S. 23-man World Cup roster
West Ham United
Los Angeles Galaxy
Jose Francisco Torres
Real Salt Lake
Los Angeles Galaxy
The case for the defense: Heath Pearce … out
The U.S. defensive line is a patchwork quilt right now, with lingering worries over every member of the backline. Oguchi Onyewu is back but is still showing some rust and limited jumping ability following his rehab from knee surgery. Carlos Bocanegra underwent a recent hernia operation and Jay DeMerit has experienced vision problems.
All this seemed to be playing into the hands of Pearce, with the assumption Bradley would need all the defensive help and backup he could muster. However, Pearce's dismal showing in East Hartford on Tuesday bumped him out. Bradley will take only seven defenders to the tournament.
Bradley's decision was made infinitely more difficult because he has an embarrassment of riches in some departments, gaping holes in others.
Midfield and goal are two areas unlikely to cause him any concern, yet the defense is looking shaky – enough to have England's strikers licking their lips ahead of the teams' June 12 opener.
The best thing about the attack is that it features a couple of players in Buddle and Gomez who have been in excellent form at club level. Having said that, both men are short of international experience, as is Findley. The "veteran" of the forwards is Jozy Altidore, the only guaranteed starter in attack at the ripe old age of 20.
Bradley could have gone a number of different directions with his squad. He could have chosen Pearce or Alejandro Bedoya, or taken a risk on Ching. In the end, though, the United States will not have a successful World Cup based on its strength in depth. There simply isn't much of it, especially when compared to the elite teams in world soccer.
If the Americans are to shine in South Africa, it will be down to the men who had no nerves going into Wednesday's announcement – the ones who were all but guaranteed a place. For Altidore, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley, the time to shine is now.