Major League Soccer players will feature prominently for the U.S. men's national team in a pair of important World Cup qualifying matches over the next 10 days. As the USA prepares to host El Salvador on Saturday before heading off to Panama next Wednesday, head coach Bruce Arena has clearly put his faith in domestic talent.
His selection of 10 current league players, as well as eight others that have called MLS their home league in the past, is an obvious display of the importance the league has on the national team stage. The MLS players called in contribute in virtually every position on the field and bring both youth and experience to the side.
Los Angeles winger Cobi Jones (161 appearances) is the most capped player on the roster, while Dallas Burn forward Eddie Johnson is still looking for his first action on the full national team. Arena chooses his squad based on each player's current form, which is why it should come as no surprise that players like Johnson, Eddie Gaven (MetroStars), Jonny Walker (MetroStars) Kerry Zavagnin (Kansas City) and Brian Ching (San Jose Earthquakes) have been selected, despite having only 13 caps between them.
All of those players have had great seasons at the club level and they have justifiably been rewarded with a chance to make an impact at the international level.
"I think it makes sense with some of our younger players to recognize how they've played in [MLS] and introduce them with the national team," said Arena. "Even the younger players, with all the talent they have, they need to have a little experience and confidence when they come into this setting. So if we bring them along the right way, when they step onto the field they're going to be able to help us produce."
A case in point is Ching. The Hawaiian-born striker is tied for the league lead in goals (11) and second in points (26 in 21 games played). When Arena turned to Ching in the U.S. team's opening semifinal round qualifying match in Jamaica, Ching combined with club teammate Landon Donovan to record his first international goal, grabbing a crucial point on the road.
"Brian did very well and, obviously, he's having a very good year with his club team," said Arena. "The reason we brought Brian in is because we felt he was a guy that could make his presence in these games and get some goals, and he certainly has demonstrated that in his short stint with the national team. He's likely to get an opportunity."
Gaven has already earned a cap at the tender age of 17, while MetroStars teammate Walker has three. Both, however, have yet to factor in qualifying. Gaven's inclusion on the roster is evidence that what a player does on the field carries more weight than his age or experience. He is tied for second in points scored (16) for the MetroStars, trailing only Honduras international Amado Guevara (28), who is also tops in the league. Gaven's ability to create both for his teammates and himself earned him a trip to the MLS All-Star Game in July, where he became the youngest starter in the nine-year history of the league.
"He continues to be a player with a lot of promise and I'm hopeful he gets an opportunity during our qualifying to show as well," Arena said of the Hamilton, N.J., native. In reference to Walker getting a chance, Arena said that no final decisions have been made.
Also called in for the match is a pair of youngsters who cultivated their skills at home and have since made the jump into the pressure cooker that is European soccer. Bobby Convey (Reading FC/England) entered MLS as a 16-year-old unknown when he joined D.C. United in 2000, while close friend DaMarcus Beasley (PSV Eindhoven/Holland) did the same in Chicago.
MLS is a league that Arena watches very intently, and he obviously puts a lot of stock in how players are performing at home. The league is producing quality young talent and giving Arena the pleasure of being forced to make difficult decisions. The U.S. national team has developed a quality group from top to bottom, thanks in no small part to the high level competition all the players endure on a weekly basis.
"I feel that we have great balance all over the roster," said Arena. "We have experienced players at every position and, over two games, certainly I feel that we're going to be able to utilize that roster fully. I feel good about the players in camp."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Soccer or its clubs.