USA's January Camp: It's all about the here and now

By Paul Kennedy

When Bruce Arena accepted the job as U.S. national team coach for a second time in November, he came armed with a binder containing the names of 48 players, his depth chart for the team.

Arena wasn't kidding as 32 players -- all from MLS -- are on the squad he's called in for the annual January camp that begins next Tuesday.

January camp: U.S. Roster

By comparison, Jurgen Klinsmann's initial squad of senior national team players called into last year's January camp consisted of 12 players supplemented by players eligible for the U-23 qualifying playoffs.

January camp in one form or another -- there was a strike in 2005 complete with 22 replacement players brought in -- has been a fixture on the national team calendar at U.S. Soccer's National Training Center since StubHub Center opened in 2003.

It's been poo-pooed as a waste of time, early fitness training for MLS players, Camp Cupcake to cynics. And it even seemed to be headed to the chopping block under Klinsmann. But January camp has been a springboard for players to earn a place on the national team dating back to Pablo Mastroeni in 2002 and more recently to Gyasi Zardes in 2015. From the 2014 World Cup team, four players debuted in January camp -- Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin and Graham Zusi.

While the 32-player squad includes seven uncapped players, this year's January camp will be more about who's back in the fold than who's coming in for the first time.

For Chad Marshall, one of four players who played for Arena 1.0, it's seven years between national team camps. Dax McCarty last attended January camp in 2011 when he served as captain against Chile in Carson. Benny Feilhaber (January 2014), Greg Garza (September 2015), DaMarcus Beasley (November 2015) and Nick Rimando (November 2015) have all gone more than a year between callups.

That doesn't mean any of them will necessarily be around in March when the USA resumes play in the Hexagonal with critical qualifiers at home against Honduras and at Panama. But Arena has sent a signal that he's ready to widen the stakes of the national team tent.

1. Honduras and Panama, and desperate need for points.

There is only one focus for Arena and his players: the two March qualifiers where the USA will be in a must-win situation against Honduras and absolutely needs a result against Panama if it doesn't want to be planning on fourth place -- followed by a tricky playoff in Asia -- as the last remaining route to Russia.

That immediacy will require Arena to find replacements at right back and central midfield for Timmy Chandler and Jermaine Jones, both suspended for the Honduras game. The short term is why 21-year-old Cristian Roldan, a big reason for the Seattle Sounders' championship run, won't be called in until later in the year. The Gold Cup in July would be a good bet.

2. The backline, where help is needed across the board.

The backline was a mess against Mexico and Costa Rica. Arena pointed that out immediately after taking the job in November, and it will be his prime focus in January even if none of the four defenders who started against Mexico and Costa Rica -- Omar Gonzalez, John Brooks, Chandler and Besler (recovering from minor surgery) -- is in camp.

The one thing we know is Arena won't be experimenting with a three-man backline, with which Klinsmann opened against Mexico in Columbus. He's said he'll stick with four in the back, arguing it takes too long to experiment with three defenders. (Historical irony: Arena famously switched from four in the back against Poland -- 3-1 loss -- to three in the back three days later against Mexico and his greatest achievement -- 2-0 win -- at the 2002 World Cup.)

With Yedlin now platooning at Newcastle United, Arena plans to give Zusi a shot at right back and look at Keegan Rosenberry, one of only two 2006 MLS rookies in camp, as other possible options at right back. (There's even Brad Evans available in a emergency to reprise his 2013 heroics.)

On the left corner, Besler was the surprise choice for the last game and half -- he started on the left side of the three-man backline against Mexico -- but struggled badly. Greg Garza (signed by expansion Atlanta United on loan from Tijuana after more than five years in Mexico), D.C. United's Taylor Kemp (one of the few surprise call-ups), and Beasley (an MLS free agent, meaning he's free to sign with any club) are options.

The call-ups who strictly play at center back are Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman (both FC Dallas) and Marshall. Birnbaum is the only one of the bunch who was around last fall. Arena will likely want at least one of the other three to be available in March as Cameron has now missed 11 straight EPL games with a knee injury suffered in October.

3. Back from the wilderness, and ready to compete in midfield.

Jones' suspension requires Arena to seek a new partner for captain Michael Bradley in midfield for Matchday 3. But what about the rest of the Hexagonal? One of Arena's stated goals is to find a better passer in midfield, if not a true playmaker.

Christian Pulisic remains the long-term hope, but as he showed in his brief stint in the middle against Mexico in November that isn't where he can be most effectively used in the short term.

That leads to the return of Feilhaber and McCarty, where they will battle Sacha Kljestan to take control in midfield. Also available is uncapped Sebastian Lletget whom Arena mostly used on the outside at the Galaxy and Wil Trapp, more of a deep-lying playmaker at the Columbus Crew.

4. Kekuta Manneh, the most intriguing new player in camp but not immediately eligible.

The easy solution at left back would be to stick Fabian Johnson back there, but that will require Arena to find someone who is at least as good an option as Johnson on the wing to pair with Pulisic.

Arena says Zardes, whose work rate on the wings he loved at the Galaxy, will be used there. Outside midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Darlington Nagbe are both holdovers from the Klinsmann era. The most intriguing new player in camp is 22-year-old Kekuta Manneh.

Manneh already has four years of pro experience with the Vancouver Whitecaps and at his best he's one of MLS's most devastating attackers. It's a testament to his value that the 'Caps' season unraveled after he broke his foot in July and was lost for the rest of the year.

There's one catch: Manneh is not currently eligible to play for the USA. He moved to the USA from Gambia at the age of 15 on Rush Soccer's exchange program, was eventually adopted by a family in Texas and has been living just over the Canadian border in Point Roberts, Washington, to keep the clock ticking on his application for U.S. citizenship.

The holdup -- the same as Stefan Frei's -- is Manneh needs clearance from FIFA, which does not automatically allow foreign-born citizens to play for their national teams. (The same rule was partly why Canadian-born Tesho Akindele didn't play when he was in January camp two years ago. Akindele now plays for Canada.)

According to U.S. Soccer, Manneh and the Swiss-born Frei are both in the process of completing their eligibility requirements to represent the USA.
3 comments about "USA's January Camp: It's all about the here and now".
  1. Allan Lindh, January 6, 2017 at 11:57 a.m.

    Bruce Arena must be thinking that if he could bring in his 2002 WC squad, they'd walk all over these gentlemen. Not more than 3 or 4 of these guys would make that squad.

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, January 6, 2017 at 12:56 p.m.

    Excellent point Allan! One must keep in mind that fifteen years have elapsed since that '02 WC squad, and even more critical is that styles and systems of play have changed ever so subtly, so what worked a decade and a half ago, could and would probably not be suitable for today's game. As for having "...3 or 4 of these guys would make that squad (sic)..." I strongly doubt that maybe they'd make it not as players but as coaches, managers, player scouts, etc. It will indeed be extremely interesting to see what BA does with his camp!

  3. John Soares, January 6, 2017 at 1:08 p.m.

    In my opinion, First; we have a couple of games coming up that must be won. So "it is" about the here and now. Second; With European based players not available Bruce does not have many options.... for the January camp. Might as well get a look at what is available and then keep those that demonstrate they can help.

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