The last time Michael Bradley played for the national team was a year ago, in Trinidad and Tobago, in the final game of World Cup qualifying. It was his 140th international appearance, most among active U.S. players.
The last time Ben Sweat played for the national team was, well, never. Sweat hadn’t even trained with the U.S. until Monday, when he joined Bradley in the first practice session for Thursday’s friendly with Colombia in Tampa, Fla.
And the fact that Bradley and Sweat are now teammates marks a big step forward for a national team that has been in transition since its first World Cup qualifying failure in 32 years.
For much of the last year, interim coach Dave Sarachan has held auditions for national team spots, restocking the talent pool by giving 18 players their first caps. This week he has begun reintegrating the veterans, adding Bradley and goalkeeper Brad Guzan to a 23-man roster that includes 16 players with fewer than 10 appearances for the U.S.
“Every national team has to have the right mix of youth and veteran experience. That’s going to be an important blend as we move forward,” said Sarachan, who lost midfielders Tyler Adams (back spasms), Christian Pulisic (torn calf muscle) and Weston McKennie (bruised calf) to injury over the last five days.
Guzan, 34, is the oldest player in camp; he was in high school when teammates Timothy Weah and Josh Sargent were born. Bradley, 31, a former captain and two-time World Cup veteran, is the most experienced; his 11-month absence from the national team was the midfielder’s longest leave in a dozen years.
Given the extent of the national team’s new emphasis on youth, Bradley said Monday he didn’t know whether he’d be invited back.
“I don’t think anybody ever knows that,” he said. “You enjoy every opportunity you have with the national team. You don’t ever take it for granted. So for me, the opportunity to be back now, [to] start to get to know some of the younger guys that have been around the last nine or 10 months, I’m very excited.”
“I thought it was going to be January camp. There were a couple of camps in between. So I’ve been patient,” he said. “For any sport you get called to your national team, doors are going to open, opportunities are going to be endless if you take advantage of it and you do the right things.”
Yet, he almost missed the call this time, too, coming out of NYCFC’s last game 10 days ago with back spasms so painful he had to be helped out of the stadium and on to the team bus. That delayed his invitation to join the national team again until trainers were sure he was healthy enough to play.
Despite the long wait, the timing couldn’t have been better since Sweat is from the Tampa area and played two NASL seasons with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Plus the U.S. is training at the University of South Florida, where Sweat set a school record for appearances while leading the Bulls to a conference title.
“My first call-up and it happens to be in my hometown,” he said with a smile. “So it’s a special moment for myself, my wife, friends, family. To be back in my old school, it’s a dream come true.”
The timing could be right in other ways, too. Left back, Sweat’s best position, has been a revolving door for the U.S. lately. And with only one other left back in camp, Sweat, at 27 the fourth-oldest player on the roster, figures to get some playing time Thursday against Colombia or in next week’s exhibition with Peru in East Hartford, Conn.
“There’s always opportunity,” he said. “To me age is just a number. Anyone can contribute. We have a bunch of good, young players coming in, we have that middle age and then we have our experienced guys.”
Now, Sarachan said, it’s time to bring that mix of age and experience together.