CARSON, Calif. – Usually tight-lipped and serious, Bob Bradley had a smile on his face immediately after the United States national team practice concluded Thursday morning at The Home Depot Center. Perhaps it was the sunshine, the solid training session or the coming end of the three-week camp.
Or maybe it was because Bradley is doing what he loves: teaching young Americans to play soccer, far removed from the pressure of a World Cup or even qualification for an international tournament. Bradley, his staff and 23 players were on Mooch Myernick Field in the shadows of the HDC simply trying to improve.
"The feel of this camp is always based up on the group that you've got in and what's coming next," the coach said. "We've had years where we've had a qualifier early in February and now you've got MLS guys who know they are preparing for that qualifier. The January camp in those moments can be very hard and demanding, but it's all with a sense that these players have been off and in order to have them ready to play early in February, that's what's needed in the camp.
"This is different. This is now a camp where we've been able to try to identify the group of young players that we thought would be excited to be here, that we thought had some starting points and give us a chance just in one camp, in one game to start the process. This camp has had a different tone just based upon [how] the schedule works."
The corollary, of course, is that the young group (average age: 23.4) doesn't include many of the country's best players. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Stuart Holden and the rest of the first-choice team are either in Europe with their clubs or recovering from a strenuous World Cup cycle.
[inline_node:326099]They will feature for the Americans during this summer's vital Gold Cup – the winner of the regional tournament earns a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup – but few, if any of the crew here, will earn a place on that roster.
That's all part of Bradley's plan. This January session – the first one of the new World Cup cycle – is designed to build depth with an eye toward the future.
"I think this camp gives us a starting point of where we are with a lot of these guys and over time you start to see how they progress," Bradley said. "It's important to keep in mind that in a first camp, the level is very different than it's like when we've got all of our best players in a camp. There's a big difference."
The reward for the untested group's hard work is a friendly with a young Chile side on Saturday. Some can look forward to another look on Feb. 9 when the Americans play Egypt in Cairo.
"Egypt is coming up quickly," Bradley said. "Obviously, it won't be that easy for us to have MLS players who have been in for the Egypt game. The timing of getting them ready for that game probably doesn't fit. We'll balance out decisions in that time with what we see going on in Europe with different guys and in particular, how it looks on Saturday with certain guys to see if it makes sense for some of them to be with us in Egypt."
Right now, however, the 23 men are simply focused on impressing the coaching staff. They know their first chance to shine might be their last. The 20-day stint is all about the inexperienced players getting comfortable in the Red, White and Blue.
In many ways, Bradley's comments about phenom Juan Agudelo (above, right) apply to the entire group. The New York Red Bulls striker went from not playing with his club to scoring the winning goal against South Africa in a November friendly. He's talented, but still raw.
"There's still part [of Agudelo's game] that just needs time in terms of overall understanding of movement and playing with his teammates and stuff," Bradley said. "It's important with him and all these young guys that we manage to help them keep things in perspective and hope they can keep moving along."
If some of them eventually join the first team, the last three weeks will have certainly be worth smiling about.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.