By Paul Kennedy
January camp, a tradition of the
U.S. men's national team program for more than a quarter century, has run its course.
Except for 1995, when the national team program was on hiatus in the months following USA 1994 as
U.S. Soccer figured out what to do with its head coach, Bora Milutinovic
, a camp of some form has been held every January since 1988. Even in the strike year of
2005, Bruce Arena
held a brief camp with USL players that led to the callup of Clyde Simms
, then playing for the
Richmond Kickers, once the first-teamers came into camp.
But no other camp was as contentious as this year's camp, Jurgen Klinsmann
's fourth since
taking over as national team coach. Klinsmann ripped the readiness of his players, saying some of them participating in the team's training camp in Carson, Calif., weren't fit enough to play and
citing it as a reason for the 3-2 loss to Chile.
Klinsmann came in for widespread criticism about his fitness remarks -- former fitness coach Pierre
SI.com that fitness had always been a hallmark of the national team -- and
the "F" word became the butt of jokes around the soccer community.
Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes
termed Klinsmann's expectations
"utterly ridiculous." “I have a lot of respect for Jurgen," said Vermes. "Obviously, he was a great player, and he’s done tremendous things as a coach, as well. But that doesn’t mean
every time someone opens their mouth, they’re right. And I completely disagree.”
This wasn't the first national team camp that first-team regulars attended. It wasn't the
first camp after which no competitive match followed shortly thereafter. (The 2015 Gold Cup doesn't begin until July.)
What has changed is that MLS clubs are now paying big money for
national team players and want them ready -- on their own timetable -- for the league season. Clint Dempsey
, Michael Bradley
, Jermaine Jones
and Jozy Altidore
, all lured back to MLS with multi-million dollar
contracts, attended January camp. Omar Gonzalez
did not go, nor did Kyle Beckerman
. Gonzalez cited
the need "to give my body a rest and make sure that I’m ready for the season."
Beckerman said he felt
"a responsibility" to be with Real Salt Lake from Day 1 of preseason after an offseason
Vermes signed his two World Cup stars, Graham Zusi
, to Designated Player contracts after they returned from Brazil. One went to Carson. The other couldn't.
Zusi could not attend the national team camp, suffering from a Grade 4 stress reaction
that Vermes feels was a result of overuse and not
enough rest and that has kept the winger out of action so far during the Sporting KC's preseason.
Besler attended January camp but admitted he was conflicted, telling Kansas City
reporters last week that his goal was to be at his peak fitness on March 1, not in January. “That’s when my season starts," he said. "It goes from March to December." Most of Besler's MLS
teammates also set the same fitness goals, he added. “If the expectation is different," Besler said, "that’s something that needs to be discussed so we know going into a camp where we need
Even a week after the camp had ended, the fitness issue lingered as Klinsmann on Monday tweeted
: "Just to clarify the fitness discussion: All players need to ALWAYS be prepared 100% to represent the USA! It is an honor to be on the #USMNT."
Klinsmann didn't come out and say players need to 100 percent fit, but he made it clear what his "expectation" is, to use Besler's words. Most tellingly, Besler used the word "discussed," as in
any expectation would not be dictated but follow some sort of back and forth.
On the subject of expectations and priorities, there will have be some give and take on both sides. MLS and
its clubs will have to make sure the league's U.S. stars get rest following participation in events like the 2014 World Cup (Zusi played for Sporting KC five days after the USA-Belgium game, and
Besler and Zusi both played a full 90 minutes six days after that) or this summer's Gold Cup (which will be immediately followed by the MLS All-Star Game).
But the inevitable conclusion
to that discussion will be that the January camp needs to be shuttered. The fitness requirements for players heading into a new season must be dictated by those set by their MLS clubs. (No major
national team coach would think of holding a camp in the middle of the summer, ahead of the European season, let alone hold a camp and expect his players to be at peak fitness.)
January camp historically served different purposes. In the pre-MLS days, it provided training that might not have otherwise existed for some players. It got the USA ready when the Gold Cup was
held in January in 1996, 1998 and 2002. And since the start of the Hexagonal -- the final round of World Cup qualifying in Concacaf -- there was a February (or early March) match to prepare for in
alternate odd years.
The early work has usually paid off. The USA beat Mexico in 2001 and 2009 in Columbus and Trinidad & Tobago away in 2005 following the short-lived player strike,
but it lost in Honduras in 2013 -- Klinsmann's first Hexagonal match -- when its team of mostly European-based players wilted in the heat of San Pedro Sula.
That mid-winter opener for the
Hexagonal is no more as FIFA has eliminated the February fixture date, just like it dropped the August fixture date. (The final round of Concacaf qualifying for the 2018 World Cup will begin in
November 2016 -- right in the middle of the MLS playoffs.)
More generally, the January camp has served to introduce new players to the national team program. Zusi debuted for the USA
following Klinsmann's first January camp in 2012. Besler arrived on the scene a year later.
A camp for national team hopefuls after the MLS season -- say, beginning after Thanksgiving --
could help address some of Klinsmann's concerns about MLS players getting less than a 11-month season, though finding decent competition in early December would be problematic. A 2016 January camp for
under-23 players might work if the USA has qualified for the Rio Olympics or faces a playoff against Colombia in March.
But the national team's January camp otherwise makes no sense.