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U.S.A. men's soccer finalizes 23-man World Cup roster

Photo by Elise Amendola

Photo by Elise Amendola

BRISTOL, Conn. -- The phones started ringing at 2 a.m., and players were told to come down to the third floor for a meeting. As Herculez Gomez pressed the elevator button on 17, his mind raced.

Were his dreams about to be fulfilled -- or crushed?

This is the way the U.S. World Cup team was finalized, in the dead of night in a Hartford hotel.

"It's been such a crazy and unbelievable journey," Gomez said.

And the big trip hasn't even begun.

For Gomez, it was good news. He and Edson Buddle went from long shots to the American roster Wednesday, joining veterans Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard on the 23-man U.S. team headed to South Africa.

While there was joy and relief for the chosen, there was only heartache and anguish for the seven players called downstairs a few minutes earlier, the players leaving the group selected May 11 for the preliminary roster, only to be cut four days before departure.

Donovan consoled Brian Ching when his roommate found out he wasn't going. Ching was on the 2006 World Cup roster but never got into a match. Having turned 32 on Monday, this was his last chance.

"It's hard to imagine your lifelong dream not coming true, someone telling you that it's not going to happen," Donovan said.

Players on the bubble were nervous before and after Tuesday night's 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic, the first of three exhibitions ahead of the U.S. team's World Cup opener against England on June 12. Before the game, the squad scheduled a nationally televised announcement for Wednesday afternoon at the ESPN campus.

After the final whistle, coach Bob Bradley still wasn't ready to tell players, wanting to first review the DVD with his coaching staff.

"Bob told us to give him some time and he'd give us a call," Gomez said. "It was one of the most nerve-racking couple hours of my life."

Then Pam Perkins, the team's general manager, started calling players. She only told those who sounded awake they had made it. The groggy-sounding ones, Gomez included, were left in the dark until they reached the meeting room and Bradley greeted them.

"He congratulated each and every one of us," Gomez said. "He definitely made us sweat it out, that's for sure."

On Thursday morning, Gomez will be with the team at the White House to receive personal congratulations from President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton ahead of Saturday's sendoff game against Turkey in Philadelphia.

At the start of the year, Gomez and Buddle weren't even afterthoughts. One named after a hero of Greek mythology and the other after soccer's greatest player -- Pele's real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento -- each played themselves onto the team with outstanding club seasons. Neither was listed in the team's 2010 media guide.

A 28-year-old from Las Vegas, Gomez scored 10 goals for Puebla to tie for the Mexican scoring lead, becoming the first American to top a foreign league. The 29-year-old Buddle leads Major League Soccer with nine goals for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Before Tuesday, Buddle's only national team appearance was 11 minutes in 2003. Gomez, who scored the second goal against the Czechs, had played in just two games, both three years ago.

Buddle, whose father Winston played professionally in Jamaica, didn't believe he made it even when Bradley congratulated him.

"I thought he was messing around," Buddle said.

Gomez only went to Mexico after the Kansas City Wizards made no effort to re-sign him after the 2009 season.

"I wasn't good enough for the Wizards last year, so to be where I am today is amazing," he said.

They were chosen over Ching, who only returned May 13 from a hamstring injury sustained while playing for Houston on April 1.

"Plain and simple, Edson and Herculez have had real good stretches, scored a lot of goals," Bradley said. "Brian has been such an important player, but it's tough when you have an injury at an inopportune time."

Beasley also had a remarkable turnaround and will be going to his third World Cup. He teamed with Donovan to spark the Americans to a quarterfinal appearance in 2002, their best finish since reaching the semifinals at the first World Cup in 1930. Then he was part of the disappointing team eliminated in the first round four years ago.

He was exiled from the national team after poor play at the Confederations Cup last June, but returned for the March exhibition at the Netherlands.

"I like being one of the old guys. I get called grandpa now," said Beasley, who turned 28 on Monday.

Beasley made a strong showing at the training camp that began May 17.

"He certainly had to prove himself," Bradley said. "He needed to make a renewed commitment to the team, a renewed commitment to doing things as a player that make his team better. We've seen that."

Bradley selected three goalkeepers, seven defenders, nine midfielders and four forwards -- one midfielder more and one defender fewer than the average.

Seventeen players are based in Europe, with just four from Major League Soccer and two from Mexican clubs. Of the European group, eight play in England, three in Germany, two in Scotland, and one each in Denmark, France, Italy and Norway.

Forward Jozy Altidore at 20 is the youngest player, and backup goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, who turns 38 next month, is the oldest. The average age is just under 27, down from 28.5 at the 2006 tournament.

Donovan, with a U.S. record 42 goals in 121 appearances, is the most experienced player and Buddle the least, becoming the 92nd player to appear for America since Bradley replaced Bruce Arena as coach in December 2006. Of the 43 players in qualifying, 19 made the roster.

Cut in addition to Ching were defenders Chad Marshall and Heath Pearce; midfielders Alejandro Bedoya, Sacha Kljestan and Robbie Rogers; and forward Eddie Johnson.

Donovan, Beasley and defender Steve Cherundolo earned their third World Cup trips, although Cherundolo got hurt in South Korea in 2002 and didn't make it into a game.

Injured players can still be replaced up until 24 hours before the U.S. opener.

"It doesn't stop here," Beasley said. "We have a lot of work to do."