When it comes to assessing and dissecting the U.S. national team’s January camp rosters, here is this most important thing to remember: You really should conquer any urge to overreact.
Generally speaking, what happens in the January camp has only marginal bearing on what happens through the rest of the year, also known as the time “things get real,” or something like that.
January camp has always been about experimentation and exploration, so getting too upset about things happening on the StubHub Center training fields and at those two winter friendlies is just wasted energy. Remember how much breath we all wasted last year in deliberation of the three-man back line? Well, that thing was like the latest failed app out of Silicon Valley; it lasted 45 minutes and was never seen again.
So this is where it’s better to give Jurgen Klinsmann a pass on any mixed messages, spin and instances of wandering philosophy that have marked his time in charge. Yes, anyone could find a few things not to like about the January camp roster, but it was ever thus.
Would it be better to see a few more guys in the mid-career range (thinking mostly about Dax McCarty, Matt Hedges, Andrew Ferrell and Robbie Rogers here) invited into camp? Probably. After all, if this is a camp of opportunity ahead of World Cup qualifiers, as Klinsmann says, they seem closer to being battle hardened and ready to contribute than others.
Would it be better if Jermaine Jones, now 34 years old and likely to become an increasing drag on the program in various ways, were not any part of it? You could make that case.
Would it perhaps have been better to have two separate groups, one complete under-23 version ahead of the critical, last-hope Rio Olympics qualifier, alongside a more typical January senior team bunch? Perhaps.
But again, these are all meandering and somewhat pointless suggestions. The January camp has always been a bit of an odd duck, a camp whose purpose wanders and shifts with the times. It’s not something most national teams have, so its very structure and purpose is perennially “under construction.”
That’s not a criticism; it’s just a product of shifting priorities, shifting coaching staffs and shifting player pools. Remember, this is always an MLS-heavy camp, designed in large part for those MLS types. So the winter camp’s targets and intent evolve, based in part on how many national team candidates are in Europe. (Actually, even then it changes based on current dispersion patterns of the Yanks abroad. Players employed in Scandinavian leagues can participate in the camp, while most in England, Germany, Spain or elsewhere cannot, since their clubs remain in mid-season.)
So the camp’s purpose varies. Sometimes it’s a head start on fitness. Sometimes it’s about hard and fast prep for a meaningful World Cup qualifier. Sometimes it’s about examining a bigger crop newbies ahead of a fresh World Cup cycle. Either way, there’s always plenty of trial and error that lead to proportionally predictable results: a good “hit” here or there but a lot of “misses,” players who demonstrate through performance that they are overmatched at international level.
Even the size of the camp varies measurably; last year Klinsmann summoned 28 players, five more than this time around.
“The January camp has always been the camp of opportunities for players that badly, badly want to knock at the door of the senior national team and want to become a player of international status,” Klinsmann said in the federation’s press release. “Here we are giving that opportunity now to kind of already mature players like a Tony Tchani, like Ethan Finlay, or Luis Robles. You want these players really to come in and make a point and take that opportunity to try to come back into that group by the end of March and maybe play World Cup Qualifying.”
There’s a lot to like here as the camp plays out over a month in currently marshy Southern California, culminating in friendlies against Canada and Iceland. The camp starts Jan. 11 and finishes Feb. 5 with the second of two matches at the StubHub Center just outside of Los Angeles.
So, a better and longer look at Darlington Nagbe? Yes, give us a heaping helping of that, pretty please. Same for Jordan Morris. This is the chance for them to more solidly establish themselves as longtime roster staples.
It’s a good chance for Michael Bradley to put his so-so 2015 year behind him and find an early, appropriate pace to ease into a better 2016. Don’t underestimate the importance of getting the best from the longtime “brains” of this operation.
San Jose’s Fatai Alashe, Chicago Fire’s Matt Polster, Columbus’ Will Trapp and Tony Tchani all have an opportunity to establish themselves as the program’s No. 6, the heir to Kyle Beckerman’s role. You could perhaps add Dallas’ Kellyn Acosta to that list since he plays as a dual-defensive screener for Oscar Pareja, although he’s listed on the U.S. roster as defender, which is where he played in last year’s Under-20 World Cup.
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