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MLS talent given chance to show stuff

Cobi Jones talks about what the USMNT learned in Brazil
Cobi Jones talks about what the USMNT learned in Brazil
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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TRAVEL PLANS

Fans and players can now rejoice. USA books World Cup ticket after a long, arduous journey.

It is widely referred to as Camp Cupcake. The USA's traditional January camp for out-of-season Major League Soccer players and a smattering of foreign-based stragglers owes the belittling moniker to its low standing in the pantheon of national team gatherings. Yet this time around, and more than in any other World Cup year, the camp has taken on a real relevance. As has Saturday’s capstone friendly against the Korea Republic (live, Saturday, 5 p.m. ET)

In a World Cup year such as this one, the otherwise fairly casual Los Angeles happening for the second, third and indeed fourth strings of national teamers, typically turns a tad more competitive. With career-altering jobs on the line, the intensity ratchets up -- but never quite as much as it has this year.

The training camp started out in Los Angeles, continued in Sao Paulo to get would-be World Cup-bound players acquainted with the surroundings for this summer’s big dance down in Brazil, and concluded back in Los Angeles. On Saturday, the USA takes on the Korea Republic -- who took a 4-0 battering at the hands of Mexico on Wednesday night -- at the Los Angeles Galaxy’s (oh, and Chivas USA’s) sold-out StubHub Center.

As ever, this camp produced fluffy stories about noteworthy hobbies and habits -- this time around on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s propensity for flying a helicopter to practice, and the team’s tradition of carpooling to the field in soccer mom-vans -- in the absence of proper news. But the stakes -- and scrutiny -- are higher now.

“For all national teams it’s very difficult with one official FIFA date prior to going into camp for the World Cup to get your hands around all the players that you want to see,” Klinsmann said in his pre-game press conference. “One game in March [against Ukraine] and hopefully another one in April [rumored to be against Mexico with an all-MLS team] is not enough to see where the players are at.”

This creates a rare opportunity for those in camp to climb the depth chart in the absence of more data on their foreign-based competitors. And whereas in recent cycles, World Cup-year January camps had no more than a small handful of jobs in play, this one could have a much bigger impact on the roster.

Because a duo of trends has significantly altered the math since Major League Soccer started in 1996, the number of players it has contributed to the USA’s World Cup rosters has dropped precipitously, from 16 in 1998 to 11 in 2002 and 2006 and then to four in 2010. Klinsmann, however, has shed this fetish for foreign-based players and demonstrated a fresh willingness to source his team locally. A second trend amplifies this effect. Since last summer, USA regulars Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst have all chosen to bookend their European careers and return stateside. Several high-profile players already in MLS - Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi -- have chosen to re-sign with the league in favor of options abroad (all but Dempsey, Bradley and Edu are in camp).

Consequently, at least a dozen MLS-based players are serious candidates to go to the World Cup. And as many as eight are potential starters. By reversing the Europhilia, Klinsmann -- a European, ironically -- has opened up the competition for the remaining jobs to just about each of the 22 players still on the camp roster.

Which is all to say that Saturday’s affair with the Korea Republic represents a considerable chance. Since these domestic camps now bring in the bulk of starters, rather than a heavily diluted facsimile of the first team, the context for a standout performance by a newcomer is much more favorable. For many of the players involved, then, this game represents much more than a shot at telling their grandchildren they played for the national team once.

“I think it’s still wide open, the race to go,” midfielder Brad Davis told USSoccer.com. “I don’t think there’s too many certainties of who’s going to be in the lineup. Jurgen has come in and really changed things up and given a ton of people an opportunity to come into this team and prove themselves and make an impact and hasn’t been afraid to change faces.”

By Klinsmann’s own count, there are at least five World Cup jobs still up for grabs. At least. “Now, obviously, you want the players to use that opportunity and show a good game and show where they are right after this intense three and a half weeks of training,” Klinsmann said.

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Saturday’s opposition looked meek against Mexico, but they are World Cup bound and they hold a 1-3-2 all-time record against the USA. And Klinsmann is convinced the lopsided score was deceptive. “It is a team that will high-pressure you, that will interrupt your rhythm, a team that has a tremendous amount of energy and individual talent,” he said of the Korea Republic.

Any player delivering a fine showing could earn another shot with the full A-team in Ukraine. Or the rumored match-up with Mexico in April. Or, further down the line, at the World Cup.

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