Kyle Beckerman was trying his best to be professional, but his disappointment, thinly masked on his face, was sitting just below the surface. His friend and Real Salt Lake teammate, Robbie Findley, has made the 30-man provisional cut for the US World Cup roster. He has not.
“I’m excited for Robbie,” he said diplomatically, when asked by MLSsoccer.com how he feels about missing out.
The Real Salt Lake captain has been playing arguably the finest soccer of his life. Yet three years into his amazing journey with the US national team, he’s coming to terms with the fact that he simply ran out of time to impress Bob Bradley.
Of course, Beckerman isn’t the only omission from the 30 who had a case. But he’s part of a special group that had been specifically groomed, handpicked as guys who would provide the depth of the future of the USMNT.
Specifically, the 2007 Copa América squad.
Recall, if you will, that was Bradley’s first real dilemma as US head coach. After marshaling his troops to that summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup title – a rough journey, ending with a thrilling win over Mexico – he had to submit yet another 22-man roster to compete as special invites to South America’s championship.
Ultimately, the choice was clear. Overtaxing his victorious but exhausted team – many of whom had to report back to their MLS and European clubs – was out of the question. The decision was made to start from the ground up, to cultivate a new group of up-and-coming talent.
The resulting squad comprised a few Gold Cup holdovers, but 16 players aged 25 or younger. Eleven of them had five or fewer international appearances, and eight had been capped only once – or not at all. For guys like Beckerman, Herculez Gomez, Sacha Kljestan, Brad Guzan and Charlie Davies, the expectations were clear.
"Copa América is going to be a great opportunity for our younger players to gain invaluable experience at the highest international level," Bradley said at the time. "This group has many of the faces that could play a role in 2008 and 2009 when our focus turns to our ultimate goal of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa."
The results were, of course, predictable. Inexperienced youngsters were thrown into the fire – almost literally in sweltering Venezuela – in a hugely popular tournament that is taken extremely seriously in South America. Against the loaded “A” teams of Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia, the young Yanks learned a quick lesson in international play, going three-and-out by a combined 8-2 score line.
“The first game I went into, Diego Maradona was in the stands,” recalled Beckerman, who earned just his second US cap in the opener, a 4-1 loss to Argentina. “I was actually being subbed in at the same time Carlos Tévez was being subbed in for Lionel Messi. It was surreal.”
But did that tournament serve its purpose? In almost every way, yes. This week, Bradley summoned nine players from that team among the 30 names called for the final pre-World Cup camp in Princeton, N.J. To think that a squad that inexperienced ended up producing that many players who can compete at the highest level is mind-blowing.
Some, like Jay DeMerit and Ricardo Clark, have been regulars ever since then. Some, like Kljestan and Heath Pearce, have been in and out of camps but have made big pushes in recent months. And one in particular, Gomez, has reappeared seemingly out of thin air.
Of course, a lot of hopefuls didn’t make it. Beckerman is one. So is Marvell Wynne. Further down the line are guys who have fallen further back from the pool: Justin Mapp, Danny Califf, Drew Moor and Bobby Boswell. But ask any one of them, and they’ll tell you that experience – as painful as it was – was huge in building their confidence, experience and abilities.
“[Bradley] didn’t show any signs to us that we were a ‘B’ team,” recalled Moor, who got his first cap in the second game, a 3-1 loss to Paraguay. “He showed a lot of faith in us. He treated us like we were his top players, he trained us the same way and prepped us that way. We didn’t feel like we were strangers to the system, though technically, we were.”
Bradley took a lot of heat at the time for picking a weaker roster for the tougher of two competitions, one in which the US arguably could have won more critical acclaim from the international community for hanging with the big boys. Instead, he realized his kids could grow into men faster, and they’d be able to contribute sooner. This current US roster is an inarguable testament to that.
“A lot of players over here get a call-up and they play their first match against Panama, Cuba, El Salvador, Belize,” Gomez explained to MLSsoccer.com, “which is great. But I got my first game against Argentina. For me, that was something special. I’ll never forget that tournament.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.