Pros, cons on USA having a 30-man World Cup training camp
MAY 20, 2014 5:40p ET
Getting the details right won't win you the World Cup; only talent will. But getting them wrong can doom your campaign from the outset. When you're an outfit like the United States men's national team, a regional power still grappling to compete on the world stage, handed a brutal draw to boot, the little things take on an outsized importance.
And so we come to question factors that more established soccer countries might not think twice about. This is a lesson learned the hard way. At the 1998 World Cup in France, head coach Steve Sampson deposed his captain, brought in a newly naturalized player to usurp a regular and practically imprisoned his team in a chateau in the middle of nowhere. The Americans bickered and bombed, losing all three of their games.
There were surely other issues at play in the chain of causality. But the point stands: without the right squad makeup, the right mindset, and the right preparations, things quickly fell apart. Which is why some have questioned current head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to bring his entire 30-man provisional roster to his World Cup training camp at Stanford University, beginning last week. He won't pare down to his final 23-man roster until the June 2 deadline, or just a few days prior.
"When I coached in Germany in 2006, I named 23 [immediately] because I was pretty sure about the 23, so we went straightforward with that decision," Klinsmann explained at the start of camp. "The reason why we took 30 is because we aren't sure yet, simple as that. We want to see them come in and compete for the spots. We have 50-50 cases all over the place."
In 2002, Bruce Arena announced his final squad by April 22 and went to camp with just his World Cup team. He did the same in 2006. In 2010, Bob Bradley brought 30 men. There are no conclusions to be drawn about which is better from how those teams fared. Arena's first team soared sensationally to the brink of the semifinals. His 2006 squad bombed out in the group stage. Bradley's team won its group and didn't lose the round of 16 until extra time.
Klinsmann had indicated at first that he would bring in 26 to 28 players. But varying levels of fitness -- right back Timmy Chandler sustained a serious knee ligament injury in February; Omar Gonzalez is still on the mend from his own knee injury -- perhaps made the decision a function of circumstance rather than intention. Bradley, likewise, had several players who were on their way back from serious injury: Oguchi Onyewu, Brian Ching and Stu Holden.
Nevertheless, there are perhaps as many downsides to bringing in an extended squad as there are upsides. It steals some attention away from the bigger picture: the World Cup. Instead, players are worrying about making the team, rather than how best to prepare for the taxing group stage games with Ghana, Portugal and Germany down the line.
"I'm not a fan of the 30-man provisional roster," said former United States defender and Kick TV personality Jimmy Conrad, who was on the 2006 team but faded from contention just before the 2010 World Cup. "I think it turns the first three weeks of camp into a reality show, it changes the complexion of what you're trying to accomplish. Everything is scrutinized in a different way because you're getting these guys just going at a 1,000 miles an hour to try to prove they deserve to be on the team as opposed to having the guys feel confident and comfortable with "I'm on the team, I made it, how can I make this team the best it could possibly be?"
You could argue that this is in line with the overarching message of Klinsmann's tenure. He has shaken up an ossified hierarchy and installed a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately meritocracy. As such, he has developed more depth than the program has ever known. But keeping that dog-eat-dog competition going into camp could have its disadvantages.
United States Hall of Famer and FOX Sports analyst Brian McBride knew he had made the team going into camp for the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups. "For me, it was a great scenario," he said. "What I think it really did for the guys in the camp was you're able to build towards something. Personally, I enjoyed knowing who was going to be my teammates, being able to focus completely on not just the soccer aspect but the fitness aspect and getting the team into a thought-process together. I'm sure it can be done with a larger group, but there is that cloud of uncertainty."
Team-building and tactical fine-tuning could be a victim of stoking the intensity up to the deadline. "Right now, we could be building some rapport between our back four or how we're going to step up and press as a group," said Conrad. "It would be two more weeks to focus on Ghana and build a trust with the 23 guys that you know are going to be there. But now you have a bit of a distraction because you have these guys that are laying everything on the line that I don't think needs to be there."
Others, however, think ratcheting up the pressure artificially is helpful. Striker Brian Ching made the team in 2006 but was one of the post-camp cuts in 2010. "Maybe with extra players being there, there's more motivation for guys to constantly be on their toes and not relax and take it easy before going into the World Cup," he said. "Maybe that little extra competition kind of helps in the build-up."
When he was dismissed, Ching was crushed. "it kind of came as a shock, not only to me but to other players around me," he said. "But even though I didn't make the World Cup in 2010, I was happy to get the opportunity to perform and play well. I would rather have been in that training camp and not made than not even get called in."
If Klinsmann really does have as many 50-50 cases as he says he does -- "I'd like to think after three years and knowing your player pool inside and out he has a really good idea who his 23 are," counters Conrad -- the protracted audition has value. But it comes at a cost and threatens to turn a few of the send-off games against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria into glorified tryouts, rather than final tune-ups in which to tinker and touch up the tactics.
The World Cup will have the final say on Klinsmann's decisions. If he succeeds, they will be called clever. If he doesn't, they'll be second-guessed forever.