CHICAGO (AP) - Forget the calendar still says 2010 and that the blare of the vuvuzelas has barely faded.
The countdown to the 2014 World Cup is already on.
The U.S. plays Poland on Saturday night in a game that, ultimately, means nothing to either team. It will, however, allow American coach Bob Bradley to get an early start on the delicate process of integrating young talent who might play big roles at the World Cup in Brazil with his old reliables.
“Transition is always interesting,” Bradley said. “On the one hand, there’s a need to start the process with some younger players that we think potentially can help the team. But at the same time, it’s done with the sense that some veteran players continue to play really well.”
With four years between World Cups, turnover is a necessity on national teams, especially those with numerous starters approaching or past 30. Age catches up with every player eventually, and there are cautionary tales all over the world of teams that relied on the same roster for too long.
Four years after winning the World Cup in Germany, Italy gambled with much the same roster for South Africa and was gone after the first round. One of the biggest criticisms of Bruce Arena’s second stint with the U.S. was that he relied too heavily on his veteran players. After reaching the quarterfinals in 2002, the Americans crashed out in the first round in ‘06.
“You always want to find a good balance between strong leadership, experience, guys that have been there and have really grown in their roles with the national team (and) some younger players that now we think have the talent to help us,” Bradley said. “It’s a balancing act, for sure.”
But one that has to be done.
With Major League Soccer’s playoffs starting in two weeks, the U.S. roster for the Poland game will be made up solely of European-based players, a first since at least 1996. Bradley won’t have Landon Donovan or Edson Buddle, whose Los Angeles Galaxy are trying to hold onto the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and he passed on World Cup team members Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA) and Robbie Findley (Salt Lake).
Instead, he gave 21-year-old defender Eric Lichaj his first full call-up, and brought in 23-year-old midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, one of the final cuts for the World Cup roster. Veteran midfielder Jermaine Jones, who last year switched nationalities from Germany, also is making his first appearance with the U.S.
“I still consider me young in terms of American players. I’m still developing and learning,” Bedoya said. “I still have a ways to go. The more I get these chances and opportunities, I think I’ll just be able to take more advantage of it and hopefully become a better time. And, over time, be a part of the squad.”
While Saturday’s game and one Tuesday against Colombia in Chester, Pa., give Bradley a chance to tinker with his lineup, what players do away from the national team will be equally important.
After playing at Fairleigh Dickinson and Boston College, Bedoya headed straight for Europe, signing with Orebro in Sweden in late 2008. He has four goals for Orebro, including one last month just 16 seconds into a game.
“My goal is to move abroad, go to a bigger challenge, bigger league, bigger team, bigger club,” Bedoya said. “I wouldn’t say I’m in a rush or anything. But, ultimately, that’s the reason why I went to Sweden.”