He has cards; will he shuffle deck?

Once the irrelevance of the current CONCACAF Gold Cup is out of the way at the end of this month, U.S. national team coaches can turn their attention to something more meaningful than an over-hyped tournament that should be played every four years, not every two.

Three things immediately come to mind.

The first is trying to end a futile 72-year run by actually winning a game against Mexico in Mexico City. Going into the Aug. 12 World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium, the U.S. has an 0-18-1 record in the Mexican capital.

“It’s a huge challenge,” U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said in a midweek conference call that shed very little light on very many matters.


The second task is in securing qualification for South Africa 2010 as soon as possible after that.

The U.S. will have four games remaining -- against El Salvador on Sept. 5 in Sandy, Utah, on the road against Trinidad and Tobago on Sept. 9 and Honduras on Oct. 10, and against Costa Rica in Washington on Oct 14.

With the right combination of results, the U.S. could clinch outright qualification, or at least a playoff spot against the fifth-place South American finisher, by early September.

Third, and as important, will be the integration of new players onto the U.S. team, and this is where things possibly get more interesting.


For example, is Bradley the slightest bit interested in German-born midfielder Jermaine Jones, whose defensive midfield prowess could put in jeopardy the starting role of Bradley’s son, Michael, not to mention the World Cup prospects of Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan?

Is the elder Bradley even going to consider defender Edgar Castillo, who first opted to play for Mexico and now, like Jones, wants to play for the U.S.?


The Jones factor

Of potentially far more value to the U.S. on the field than Castillo is Jones, the 27-year-old Frankfurt-born son of an American serviceman and a German woman.

Jones has played eight seasons in Germany and has almost 100 Bundesliga games under his belt, including stints with Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen and, currently, Schalke ’04.

He played four games for Germany at the Under-20 World Cup in Argentina in 2001, and in 2008 appeared in three friendly games for the full German national team, against Austria, Belarus and England.

But he has a prickly nature, is outspoken to the point of rudeness, and has a propensity for self-promotion, as evidenced by his website:


Above all, he seems to be a magnet for controversy.

For instance, in rejecting Germany last month, he claimed he had not been given a fair shake by Germany Coach Joachim Low and the German soccer federation (DFB).

“The basis upon which they make decisions annoys me,” Jones told Sport Bild magazine. “Certainly it does not come down to performance. In my case it was unfair and not correct. I did not have a fair chance with the DFB.”

He said he chafed under the rules imposed.

“You have always got to keep your mouth shut, agree with everything and obey the DFB,” he said. “There is a climate of uniformity. But that is not me.”

Even more controversial was a comment he made to New York Times reporter Jack Bell, although Jones and his agent subsequently said that the player had been misunderstood because of his halting English.

“When somebody looks at me, I’m not the perfect German,” the newspaper’s soccer blog quoted Jones as saying. “When I look at people in the States, they look more like me. In Germany, with my tattoos, people say, ‘Ooh, he’s not a good man.’ But look at [David] Beckham. He has tattoos and no one says that. Maybe because I don’t have blue eyes and blond hair. But that is not a problem for me. I don’t have a good feeling about stuff in Germany.”

All of this will have made mandatory reading for Bradley, whose midweek remarks went no further than saying Jones “will be a player that we can consider” and that “he’s played a lot of big games, and that type of experience can always be very helpful.”



The Castillo question

If Jones has upset Germany, Castillo has likewise ruffled feathers in Mexico.

The New Mexico-born Castillo, 22, now with Tigres UANL after a failed stint with Club America and, before that, a successful one with Santos Laguna, said last month that he wants to play for the U.S. even though he already has represented Mexico in a handful of non-competitive matches.

The official Mexican response? Good riddance.

“Belonging to the national team should be a pride, a satisfaction, a great responsibility because of what it represents,” Nestor de la Torre, the director of the Mexican soccer federation, told reporters in Mexico City.

“If someone is not convinced of that, then a player with those doubts does not interest us. There is no room in the national team for people like that.

“This is not personal. Any player who does not have the aspirations, the desire, does not feel the pride, does not belong with the national team.”

Contrast that with Bradley’s response when asked about Castillo playing for the U.S.

“It’s possible that we would have the ability to consider him in the future,” was as far as Bradley would venture.

It’s pathetic, really. The more the U.S. learns to play the game on the field the less its leading figures grasp the idea of creating and building fan interest by actually saying something that might spark debate.

Caution prevails, but caution never wins anything.


A final word or two

Thankfully, Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena does not fall into the stay-silent, stay-safe, stay-boring category.

The coach of the U.S. 2002 and 2006 World Cup teams was asked recently about the Americans’ second-place finish in the just-concluded 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa.

“Great accomplishment, no question about it,” Arena replied.

Then came the zinger.

“I think there’s no correlation to performing in a Confederations Cup and a World Cup. They [the players who went] just happen to know what South Africa looks like.

“I don’t believe anything you’ve seen in the Confederations Cup will transfer to the World Cup in any way, shape or form -- besides the fact that you know what the hotels look like, the geography of South Africa. And I tell you that from experience.

“I really believe that if you ask Spain and Italy and some other countries if they didn’t have to go there, they wouldn’t go. They wouldn’t have been in the Confederations Cup.”

Agree with Arena or not, it was an honest opinion worthy of water-cooler talk. And that’s the point.




By the numbers


Trophies that forward Michael Owen, newly signed by Manchester United, has won since leaving Liverpool in 2004.


Years, according to Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele, that it will take South Africa to complete a $3.18-billion rail system capable of handling fans for a World Cup that begins in 11 months.


The jersey number that Brazilian midfielder Kaka will wear at Real Madrid.


Distance in kilometers that separates River Plate’s Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires from Rosario Central’s Gigante de Arroyito Stadium in Rosario, where Argentina Coach Diego Maradona wants to play Brazil in a World Cup qualifier because he says fans at Monumental are not supportive enough.


The amount in dollars that Dick Advocaat, who played for the Chicago Sting in the North American Soccer League in 1979 and 1980, will earn per year once he becomes Belgium’s national coach on Jan. 1.

18 million

The playing salary in dollars that Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo will earn per season at Real Madrid, according to Spanish media.

-- Grahame L. Jones