Decision time looms for U.S. roster
U.S. coach Bob Bradley will name his final 23 for South Africa on Wednesday
Heath Pearce's shaky performance could see him lose out on a final roster spot
Herculez Gomez's ability to score off the bench has probably sealed his ticket
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- So who's on the 23?
That's what you want to know, and we'll learn the U.S.'s final 23-man World Cup roster soon enough: at approximately 1:20 p.m. ET on Wednesday, when coach Bob Bradley announces his 23 Golden Tickets on ESPN.
In the wake of the U.S.'s 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic -- an almost meaningless result, considering the Americans were missing Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and other stars -- Bradley left Rentschler Field knowing that a long night lay ahead. Bradley said the coaching staff planned to speak individually to each of the seven cut players and thank them for their efforts. It is a crushing blow to get this close to making the World Cup and come up short, and Bradley seemed aware of that.
For seven months we have been providing regular installments of SI.com's 23 Golden Tickets, the group that we thought Bradley would take to South Africa. All you can do is watch the games, ask Bradley questions and try to read the tea leaves in his responses. So let's do it one last time. Here are the 23 guys that I think will make Bradley's list on Wednesday afternoon:
Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Marcus Hahnemann.
The only question here is who is Bradley's No. 2: Guzan or Hahnemann? I know Bradley wanted to use all six subs to look at field players on Tuesday night, but the choice of Guzan leaves me wondering if Guzan remains the U.S. No. 2 keeper even though he played far less than Hahnemann during the recently completed English Premier League season. I expect No. 1 Tim Howard would play in both remaining pre-World Cup games, so we may have an answer on the back-up right there. (The U.S. coaching staff could make this a lot easier if they made the No. 3 keeper use a headset and clipboard on the sidelines like a No. 3 NFL QB.)
Defenders (7): Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector.
I think Heath Pearce's spot on the roster is in real trouble. Why? For starters, he didn't look very good at left back on Tuesday. But I'm also reading some tea leaves. Bradley keeps talking about the importance of versatility on the back line, and taking seven nominal defenders (instead of eight) doesn't mean that he has only seven players who can fill a spot on the back line. Consider Bradley's move of Maurice Edu to center back late in the game on Tuesday. "Knowing the comfort level that we would have of using him there helps us with some other decisions," said Bradley afterward.
Seeing DaMarcus Beasley track back well on defense down the left side was another reminder that Beasley could play left back in a pinch. (People put too much importance on his struggles at left back in Costa Rica last year. It was only one game, and he generally has good defensive instincts.) Even on the back line there is versatility: Spector can play any of the four positions, while Bocanegra and Bornstein can play in the center or on the left.
That hardly means there aren't plenty of concerns on the U.S. back line. Onyewu played his first game in seven months on Tuesday night, clocking 65 minutes. That in itself was good news, and Bradley thought Onyewu's work on the ball and positioning were "pretty solid." But Onyewu's jumping ability post-knee operation was called into question when he was rooted to the turf as Tomas Sivok leaped above him to head home the Czechs' first goal.
"I mentioned to both our center backs at halftime," said Bradley, "in that battle for position their forwards do a good job. So there's times that even though we have height in the back, they were getting better position and coming away with some headers. It's not just pure height in terms of winning those headers. It's the ability to put yourself in the right spot a little bit before your opponent."
My expected defender cuts: Chad Marshall, Pearce.
Midfielders (9): DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Jose Torres, Alejandro Bedoya.
If Pearce doesn't go to South Africa, that would provide a spot for Bedoya, a player who could provide a wild-card off the bench at the World Cup. So many people inside the U.S. team have said Beasley has had a good camp that I would be extremely surprised if he didn't make the roster at this point. (Consider, though, that I didn't have Beasley making it before the camp started.) I just don't think Sacha Kljestan will make it. He has had some pretty good moments in MLS this season, but he never did quite recover from his slide in 2009. Robbie Rogers has a promising future, but he hasn't done enough to force Bradley to include him in this team.
My expected midfielder cuts: Kljestan, Rogers.
Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Brian Ching.
I'll include Dempsey in this group because I still haven't seen evidence that there is a better option up top to pair with Altidore. Ching's set-up-man skillset is unique in the U.S.'s forward group, and I think Gomez has now done enough (helped by his goal on Tuesday) to complete a remarkable rise from obscurity to a spot on the World Cup team. One advantage for Gomez over other forward candidates is that many of his goals in the Mexican league last season came when he was a subsitute -- the same role he would likely play for the U.S. in South Africa. Much like a relief pitcher in baseball, there is a skill in being able to enter a game and make an instant impact. Gomez has it.
My expected forward cuts: Robbie Findley, Eddie Johnson, Edson Buddle.
There you have it: My final 23 Golden Tickets. On Wednesday the months of speculation finally end.