It's time to shutter January camp

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 Barrieu told 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 shakeup.

Vermes signed his two World Cup stars, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, 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 to be.”

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.

8 comments about "It's time to shutter January camp".
  1. Mike Singleton, February 18, 2015 at 9:39 a.m.

    It seems Jurgen is forgetting physical limitations all humans have and must respect. Although he wants "All players need to ALWAYS be prepared 100% to represent the USA!" it is impossible for any athlete to be in peak shape 12 months/year and every year. Trying to do so will lead to both physical and mental burnout and shorten careers.

    Thinking back years ago, when Jurgen was playing for the German National Team, is something he should avoid in this case as the number of games and schedule players play these days is more packed than back then thus making it more difficult for players to attend all camps without risking injury and burnout.

    I understand his desire here but current day realities have to educate expectations and as tricky as scheduling is these days better scheduling could aid him in accomplishing his goals.

  2. Kevin Sims, February 18, 2015 at 10:23 a.m.

    Seems shuttering the January camp no longer fits the USA soccer landscape. Athletes in every sport need periods to refresh mentally, emotionally and physically. Let's create a cycle for the players that promotes optimum performance without compromising National Team endeavors. Get all the interested parties in a room and sort it out.

  3. Adrian Garza, February 18, 2015 at 11:29 a.m.

    Interesting ideas on how to have some other camp post MLS season... I wouldn't mind that even if it allows for Jurgen to see his future options. If not, then removing it only hurts fringe players in having opportunities so I do feel some sort of camp should still remain. Should be interesting to see how it changes.

  4. John Soares, February 18, 2015 at 12:28 p.m.

    Sorry Paul, I disagree. The problem this year was the coach. His foot in mouth remarks.... now a common trait. Were as usual more harmful than helpful. Perhaps expectations are too high!? The camp does never the less have value. It "should" be a good time to look at new/younger players. On Olympic and WC years it's a good warm up. Just as important there is little if any downside. Only "benched" players from Europe are released and MLS in in pre-season. A little "intensive" training doesn't hurt either group.

  5. Glenn Maddock, February 18, 2015 at 2:52 p.m.

    Its absurd to think a top Soccer Pro is going to remain 100% match fit for 12 months. Not possible. It would end their career by 28 if they tried to do that. The reason they used to give guys 2 to 3 full months off, was the physically grueling schedule, and the real need for mental & physical rest, recovery and therapy. JK is nuts if he think MLS players are going to be 100% in January.

  6. Ric Fonseca, February 18, 2015 at 5:41 p.m.

    Wow! I wonder what you folks would say when the old USSF of the late 60's and early 70'sand even into the early 80s that whenever an international fixture was arranged for the US MNT, the then coaches, would gather his troops - mostly college and some pro- semipro players two to three weeks and if "time permitted" for a one-month training session before the game (excluding travel, etc.) and then we'd get soundly whupped? Funny I really do not remember a hue and cry to get rid of the then head honcho, or calls for the head of US Soccer, and now this call to get rid of the January camp?

  7. Ric Fonseca, February 18, 2015 at 5:43 p.m.

    For clarification, the US MNT Olympic teams did get together at least one month prior to the Olympic Games.

  8. James Madison, February 28, 2015 at 6:40 p.m.

    I have said it before, and I will say it again. Professional players (and any others who compete on a year-around basis) need a minimum of 30 days vacation---totally away from the game. Hang out. Do nothing or something relaxing that is not connected with the sport involved. Let the mind clear and the body heal. A second 30 days for physical recovery is also advisable---gradual restoraton of fitness---before returning to training.

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