It’s been nearly two months since MLS Cup, and even longer since most fans’ teams cleared out their lockers and headed home for the winter. The holidays came and passed, as did the doom scenarios (whether you feared the Mayan route or lost sleep over the ominous fiscal cliff, you’re reading this). In soccer, the fifteen or so layers of MLS drafts also took place, juggling rosters and making fans wonder if it will have any impact on their favorite team. And aside from some Women’s National Team friendlies, the pitches in America largely laid empty.
Fast forward to “Camp Cupcake,” and soccer fans started anticipating the first time they’d get to see domestic soccer on the big screen in 2013. That moment finally came last night, broadcast direct from BBVA Compass Stadium in the heart of Houston, TX. And wouldn’t you know it, it barely resembled a competitive soccer match.
In today’s social media climate opinion is instant, and the entire US Men’s National Team friendly versus Canada generated its share of views. If you follow mostly American soccer fans and media on Twitter, your feed was a constant drone of bored or disappointed or uninterested people. I was one of them.
But seriously, what were we expecting? Every player in the camp plays club soccer in a league that spent the winter off. To think the team might need 15 minutes to shake off the rust was sensible – but you expected some inspired play (and preferably a goal) as the match wore on.
Inspired play eventually came in the form of second half substitute Michigan native Joshua Gatt, a winger that plays for Molde FK in Norway’s Tippeligaen. He brought his main gift to the match, pace, but also a feistiness that you often see from a Clint Dempsey or possibly Benny Feilhaber. But even he couldn’t quite get it right, squandering a golden opportunity deep in the attacking end by refusing to use his left to cross to two open teammates at the 6 yard line.
There were others on the US team that played admirably. Omar Gonzalez continues his return from a serious knee injury with a solid (if rarely tested) 90. Kyle Beckerman did what he was asked to do, which was to provide leadership and steadiness from the defensive midfield posture. Generally speaking, the rest of the squad out there seemed out of sync and incapable of breaking down a Canadian side bent on salving the wounds left by recent humiliations against Honduras and a Denmark “B” team. The scoreless draw gave the Canucks a moral victory that helps them look ahead to the summer’s Gold Cup competition.
So to the question I posed in the title: why should fans care about the January camp and requisite friendlies? I’m not 100% sure, but I think I’m close. Four years ago, Sacha Kljestan thrilled the crowd at the Home Depot Center (his home with Chivas USA at the time) with a hat trick to help the team defeat Sweden 3-2. Yet this type of goalfest seems to be an outlying result in these friendlies.
Typically the “Camp Cupcake” MNT is involved in low scoring affairs. Couple that with a steady diet of highly technical European league soccer, and more often than not you will be underwhelmed at the entire package on the January USMNT pitch. A “B” or “C” team (this time an exclusively MLS starting lineup) just isn’t going to compare well to your top English or Spanish sides.
But maybe it’s the individual effort that should make us care. We had one this year in Josh Gatt. His efforts didn’t impact the scoreline, but he did display the reasons why fans familiar with his attributes have anticipated his appearance on the MNT. Even with guys who have featured for the MNT like Graham Zusi and Eddie Johnson, Gatt stood out when the team as a whole floundered.
Therefore in my opinion, Camp Cupcake should be about that one player who shines. That’s why fans should pay attention. You may get a quality match out of it, but don’t expect it. Next January, I won’t consume myself so much with the collective ensemble, and accept that it will rarely live up to the standard to which I’ve become accustomed. Instead, I’ll look for 2014′s Josh Gatt, that player whose performance may indicate greater things to come.