The moving parts are beginning to settle into place inside the head of Bob Bradley, the head coach of United States men's soccer team that leaves for South Africa in a matter of weeks.
Bones have healed, tendons have strengthened and ankles have mended -- at least for the most part. Bradley must now decide which players will represent the United States at the 2010 World Cup. He'll grant hope and opportunity for some, and devastate others.
In the final edition of our monthly player rater, we examine and predict who will get that coveted call to duty and why.
His story: Howard is one of about three players right now who know where they're playing June 12 against England. His Everton squad turned a dreadful start to the English Premier League season (including a season-opening 6-1 pounding to Arsenal) into a likely eighth-place finish. In the last five months of play -- December through April -- the Toffees have lost only twice and Howard is a big reason why.
Howard's next appearance for the national team will be his 50th. After backing up Kasey Keller during the 2006 World Cup, the New Jersey native is aiming to carry the United States out of the group stage. The Americans lack a potent goal-scorer, so the pressure is on Howard to deliver this summer in South Africa.
His story: The uncertain state of the United States' squad has forced Donovan into a "play me where you need me" role at this year's World Cup. Though his speed and playmaking abilities are helpful attributes, his versatility is what Bob Bradley may value most this summer. He can play every position in the midfield or be employed on the attack alongside Jozy Altidore.
There are pluses and minuses to using Donovan on the left -- a position nobody else wants to claim -- June 12 against England. On one hand, it takes care of a weak spot in the United States' lineup. On the other hand, he'll probably have to spend an ample amount of time chasing speedy wingers Aaron Lennon or Theo Walcott. Regardless of where he plays, Donovan has a lot to offer and even more to prove. Although his 10-week loan to Everton earned him plenty of respect this year, Donovan is in his prime and wants to use this tournament to show how far he -- and the Americans -- have come in the past four years.
His story: Dempsey is back on the field, but he has yet to regain the superb form he displayed before a knee injury sidelined him for four months midseason. Back then, he'd top our list as America's most dangerous player. A thigh injury kept him out of a couple games in April, but he's returned and has helped Fulham gain a spot in the Europa League final May 12 against Atletico Madrid. Dempsey was used as a second-half sub in Fulham's semifinal win over Hamburg SV.
Dempsey, the only American player to score at the 2006 World Cup, may have to shoulder some scoring responsibilities again this summer as Bob Bradley's second striker. Though he doesn't have the blazing speed to complement Jozy Altidore's brawn, Dempsey is a proven playmaker who has shown he's capable of some stunning long-range strikes. The United States needs a big tournament from Dempsey if it wants to advance out of the group stage.
His story: The Americans need to play fearless against England if they want to walk away with some points. In other words, they need to play like Bradley does every game. The coach's son is a true competitor that often wears his emotions on his sleeve. That can be a huge bonus ... or a detriment depending on the situation. Bradley's toughness from box to box will be crucial in leading the Americans in the ultimate playmaking position -- central midfield.
Bradley is one of the few players who has seemingly locked down his starting position well ahead of the World Cup. He'll be the man in the middle responsible for controlling the pace of play. If the Americans can feed off Bradley's emotion this summer, they'll be in good shape.
His story: Bocanegra is working his way back from an abdominal muscle injury, but he will be fit to start on the back line for the Americans this summer. Many wonder if his role will be on the left or in the middle. He plays on the outside for Rennes, but many of his 77 U.S. appearances have come in the middle. It all depends on Oguchi Onyewu's health and Bob Bradley's confidence -- or lack thereof -- in Jonathan Bornstein.
Bocanegra had an on-again, off-again role with Rennes at the beginning of the year, but became the team's regular left back before his latest injury. The U.S. captain is a veteran defender -- and one of the team's top current goal-scorers, actually -- who can be trusted not to make a costly mistake in the back.
His story: Altidore's recent carelessness cost him a couple spots in our latest rankings, though he remains the Americans' No. 1 striker heading into the World Cup. The 20-year-old's season ended in an embarrassing fashion with a red card and subsequent three-match ban that ruled him out for the Tigers' final two games. To make matters worse, the 1-0 loss assured Hull would be relegated this season. Altidore apologized for his behavior after the game.
Altidore hopes for greener pastures with the United States after a trying season overseas. He managed only one goal in 28 games. He did, however, draw three penalties and added three assists. Altidore will be the Americans' prime striker in South Africa, though Bradley likely will pair an experienced goal scorer (Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan) with him to make up for his recent scoring woes and a lack of other options.
His story: Onyewu's long road to recovery is nearly complete. Now it's just a matter of getting in game shape for the AC Milan defender, who makes the Americans' back line far more imposing when he's in the lineup. "Gooch" needs to regain his deft touch because the Americans can't afford any mindless slip-ups in the back if they want to earn points in their first match against the Brits. Although the pressure is more on England to win that game, the Americans are by no means going to roll over.
Onyewu (and Steve Cherundolo) started all three games in the group stage in 2006. He's an excellent defender with superb aerial skills. The U.S. needs him at full health and in great shape if it wants to grab points right off the bat in South Africa.
His story: West Ham's stay in the English Premier League was confirmed in late April, as the Spector and the Hammers avoided relegation at the expense of Jozy Altidore's Hull City squad. Spector has been a mainstay at left back, but his play of late has been anything but steady. He remains the Americans' best option at right back, though he could be challenged at training camp from veteran Steve Cherundolo, who's in a relegation battle of his own over in Germany.
On the bright side, Spector is challenged on a weekly basis by some of the best wingers on the planet, giving him invaluable experience during a World Cup year. Though plenty of the top players have gotten the best of him lately, Spector is still a solid choice for Bradley in the back.
9. JAY DeMERIT
Age (for World Cup): 30
Club team: Watford FC - Championship (England)
Previous ranking: 9
His story: DeMerit has battled the injury bug lately -- the second American to be afflicted with a troublesome abdominal muscle. But American fans seldom have to worry about DeMerit's ability to play through pain. He's one of the tougher players the U.S. has to offer. DeMerit still is considered a prime candidate to start at center back alongside a healthy Oguchi Onyewu or captain Carlos Bocanegra.
Many still cite DeMerit's fine performance against No. 1 Spain in last summer's Confederations Cup as reason he deserves a start in South Africa. The gritty Yank should be back in full form at this month's training camp and make his case for a spot in the starting lineup June 12.
His story: While many Americans spent April fighting relegation battles in their respective leagues, Edu was busy collecting trophies. After already notching the Scottish Cup title, Rangers completed the double by clinching the league title April 24. Edu played 90 minutes in the game and -- unlike fellow American DaMarcus Beasley -- now is seeing regular minutes with his club team.
In the past couple months, Edu has played his way into a starting role in the midfield with his consistency and good health. The 2007 MLS Rookie of the Year hasn't been handed the other central midfield role, but he's one impressive performance in training camp away from locking it down. Edu's inclusion on the roster is a bonus for Bob Bradley because he can double as a backup central defender, as well.
11. MARCUS HAHNEMANN
Age (for World Cup): 38
Club team: Wolverhampton FC - English Premier League (England)
Previous ranking: 16
His story: We finally made the switch. Will Bob Bradley do the same? As Hahnemann continued to steer the Wolves away from the relegation zone with big saves in low-scoring games, his backup competition, Brad Guzan, remained on the bench at Aston Villa. Guzan has taken a permanent backseat to Brad Friedel, thus Bradley may have no choice but to move the elder Hahnemann ahead of him on the depth chart as the Americans' No. 2 keeper.
During a recent five-game spell, Hahnemann's offense gave him two goals. Still, the Wolves came away with four draws (three of them scoreless) to stay afloat in the EPL. In March and April, Hahnemann posted a goals-against average of 0.78. If Tim Howard were to go down, Bradley needs the most game-ready keeper off the bench. At this point, that guy is Hahnemann.
His story: Cherundolo -- the captain at Hannover -- isn't worried about his standing on the men's national team just yet. He's trying to lead his team out of the relegation zone and stay in the Bundesliga another year. Recent losses to Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen (by an ugly, combined score of 10-0) have made matters worse, but there's still hope as five cellar-dwelling teams battle for two safe spots.
By mid-May, Cherundolo's attention will turn to winning the starting spot at right back, which he owned four years ago in Germany. Jonathan Spector is now ahead of him, but he hasn't been on his game lately for West Ham. Cherundolo is a trustworthy option to back him up for now. If Spector falters in training camp or against England, Cherundolo could slide right in and the Americans would lose very little.
His story: Guzan continues to fall down our rankings, and unfortunately for him, it's not his fault. Brad Friedel has taken sole ownership of the goalkeeping duties at Villa Park, much to the dismay of the Illinois native and former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Initially, Friedel handled the EPL duties and Guzan minded net in the Carling and FA Cup matches. But, as Friedel heated up, he took over. Guzan hasn't seen the field since a Feb. 24 FA Cup win over Crystal Palace.
American fans are hoping Bradley's decision on his No. 2 spot is a moot point. But, Guzan's strength is his prowess against penalty kicks, which he proved in a memorable Carling Cup game last fall when he saved one PK in the 83rd minute to force extra time and then three more in a dramatic shootout. If the Americans survive the group stage and find themselves in a shootout in the later rounds, could Guzan come off the bench? Something to think about.
His story: Aside from Charlie Davies, who's in danger of not making the team at all, Holden is the player most in danger of seeing his minutes drastically reduced because of injury. Holden almost clinched the starting right midfielder's spot after an impressive Gold Cup in 2009. He transferred to Bolton and was ready to get a taste of the EPL before a thigh injury delayed his debut. After finally getting on the field for two games, he broke his leg March 3 during the United States' friendly with the Dutch.
Holden, who is back to full-contact training, is expected to make a full recovery and make the squad, but one has to wonder if his starting role on the right side is still available. If Clint Dempsey plays up top and Landon Donovan wide on the left, Holden's natural position is still up for grabs. If either of those savvy veterans starts on the right side, Holden will have to come off the bench.
His story: Feilhaber continues to contribute for Aarhaus, and his ankle, which suffered cartilage damage in February, is nearly back to 100 percent. The creative Brazilian-born midfielder is one of several central players from which Bradley has to choose in this summer's tournament.
Feilhaber hasn't been considered a starter for the U.S. squad in about a year. He has the talent and athleticism to make a difference late in games, making him a perfect option off the bench should the Americans need a late spark in the group stage.
His story: Clark once owned the other starting central midfielder role alongside Michael Bradley, but his move abroad to the Bundesliga did nothing to improve his stock for the World Cup. Clark transferred to Frankfurt in January, but had to sit out for a few months because of injury. He then got fit, but had to sit on the bench for eight straight games until making his debut April 24.
The Atlanta native will make the team and remains a starting option because of his defensive prowess, although compatriot Maurice Edu also knows a thing or two about defending. Bradley can't afford to employ only offensive-minded central midfielders in the opening game against England, which could start all-World midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Clark's stock has fallen, but he remains a viable option in the middle of the field.
His story: Not many fans of the U.S. team are huge fans of Bornstein, but many of the same fans wouldn't leave him off this year's team either. Bornstein's stock dropped with an ugly performance against the Dutch on March 3 in which he committed a foul in the box that led to the Netherlands' first goal and was the victim of an unfortunate deflection on the second goal. He went from the Americans' possible solution at left back to "Don't let him near the field," in a matter of weeks.
Bradley has a lot more faith in Bornstein than the fans, and he has given him a good look in the three games in 2010. He logged the most minutes (265 of 270) of any player and may surprise us with a start if Oguchi Onyewu isn't fit. If "Gooch" can go, Bornstein is a backup and may be one of a handful of players that will be on the team, but won't see the field this summer.
18. CLARENCE GOODSON
Age (for World Cup): 28
Club team: IK Start - Eliteserien (Norway)
Previous ranking: 21
His story: The former Maryland Terrapin star has been a regular for IK Start this season and Bob Bradley has taken notice. During his visit overseas in March to watch his Scandinavia league players, Goodson was named "Man of the Match" while Bradley was in attendance. He has played his way onto the squad with decent performances in two of the three U.S. friendlies this year. He was one of the few bright spots for the States in a 3-1 loss to Honduras in January, when he scored the only goal.
Goodson likely only sees the field if either Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit or Oguchi Onyewu gets injured or carded. No matter if Bradley goes with eight defenders or seven, Goodson should get the nod this summer.
19. JOSE FRANCISCO TORRES
Age (for World Cup): 22
Club team: Pachuca - Primera Division (Mexico)
Previous ranking: 22
His story: Torres plays a key role at central midfield for his Mexican squad Pachuca, which recently won the CONCACAF Champions League title with a 1-0 victory (2-2 aggregate - away goals) over Cruz Azul April 29. Torres and Pachuca have advanced to the FIFA Word Club Cup in the United Arab Emirates in December.
Torres has yet to make a significant impact with the U.S. national team, but Bradley is aware of the flair and creativity he brings to the middle of the field. This month's training camp is vital for Torres to prove he can mesh well with his teammates so he can earn the confidence he needs to see some minutes this summer.
20. ALEJANDRO BEDOYA
Age (for World Cup): 23
Club team: Orebro SK - Allsvenskan (Sweden)
Previous ranking: N/R
His story: Bedoya jumps into our rankings and immediately contends for some playing time because of Stuart Holden's injury woes and his experience on the wing. The Miami native plays out wide on the left for Orebro, where he's played for more than a year. He scored his first goal for the Swedish team April 16, about a month after Bob Bradley made a surprise visit to Europe to scout some of his players honing their trade in the Scandinavian leagues.
Although the attacking position is the United States' biggest question mark entering this summer's tournament, one outside winger position is certainly up for grabs. The two-time Hermann trophy finalist, who came on as a substitute for the United States in friendlies against Honduras and the Netherlands, could play his way from well off the radar to into the starting lineup in a matter of months.
21. HERCULEZ GOMEZ
Age (for World Cup): 28
Club team: Puebla - Primera Division (Mexico)
Previous ranking: 25
His story: Gomez jumps into the Top 23 for one simple reason: the United States needs goal-scorers. The Las Vegas native is coming off an eye-opening campaign for Puebla in the Primera Division, where he became the first American to win the top Mexican league's scoring title. Gomez netted 10 goals, tying him with Manchester United-bound Javier Hernandez of Chivas and Johan Fano of Atlante. Because Gomez played less minutes (758), he took the honors.
With an injury to veteran Brian Ching and the questions swirling around Charlie Davies' timetable for full recovery, Gomez shoots up the depth chart. He's no shoo-in for the final roster -- with Ching and Edson Buddle nipping at his heels -- but Gomez's scoring touch could land him a ticket to South Africa.
22. CHARLIE DAVIES
Age (for World Cup): 23
Club team: Sochaux - Ligue 1 (France)
Previous ranking: 17
His story: Davies' remarkable recovery from multiple injuries took another significant step in late April when he returned to full-contact training with club team Sochaux. The timing of his return was odd, however, because it came on the same day that the team's president announced Davies' rehabilitation was not progressing fast enough to return by season's end. Davies, though, is more optimistic. He has to be.
The fact that Davies is back to full training six months after his horrific car crash outside of Washington, D.C., is fantastic news for American fans. There's no chance he regains the same form he displayed at last summer's Confederations Cup, but he can be a very effective player off the bench. Davies may not be all the way back, but he could build up the fitness necessary to earn -- in every sense of the word -- a spot in the final 23.
His story: Beasley's hopes of making his third World Cup roster are fading as he continues to watch his Rangers teammates from the bench, but his ability to provide a late spark -- as he did March 3 against the Netherlands -- keeps him in the conversation. With the team loaded with central midfielders, his experience and speed on the wing may come in handy for Bob Bradley this summer.
The Rangers won the Scottish Cup and took home another league title this season with the help of an American, but it's been Maurice Edu piling up the minutes -- not Beasley. He hasn't featured in a game since March and hasn't done much at all since December, when he registered two goals and three assists in five games. If Beasley fails to impress Bradley at this month's training camp, he'll likely be on the outside looking in. Heath Pearce, once the team's primary left back, has been playing some midfield lately in the MLS and will likely get invited into camp for a final look. Beasley has to be on his game to avoid losing his spot.
His story: Discounting Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, how many forwards will Bob Bradley bring to South Africa? That's probably on the mind of Buddle, who's played his way into World Cup consideration with his hot start in the 2010 MLS season. Buddle carried the Galaxy to a 4-0-1 start in which he tallied all seven of L.A.'s goals.
Buddle, who played for the Long Island Rough Riders in 2000, has found his groove in Los Angeles after short stints in New York and Toronto during an injury-plagued career. Buddle, at 6-1 and 185 pounds, has the body type that Bradley likes on the front line. The negative? His only national team appearance was all the way back in 2003.
His story: Brian Ching did what he had to do as a fringe player a few months ago when he tallied a goal and an assist in a Feb. 24 win over Honduras. The performance didn't earn him another look March 3 against the Dutch, but he certainly remained on the radar. On April 1, Ching injured his left hamstring and was ruled out four to six weeks, casting a dark cloud over his World Cup dreams.
The Hawaiian, who's tallied 11 goals in 44 appearances for the men's national team, is back on the field doing light training ahead of schedule in hopes of being fit for Bradley's May 17 training camp. Ching made the team in 2006, but didn't play a minute. To see the field in 2010, Bradley needs Ching operating at 100 percent by June or he's staying home.
Others up for consideration:
Goalkeeper - Nick Rimando