USMNT balances short- and long-term priorities as January camp opens

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA.

January camp often takes on a certain and familiar shape. United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann assesses the merits of fringe players and leaves most of his regulars with their clubs for one reason or another. MLS standouts receive their chance to impress after good performances during the previous campaign. The combination provides a platform for the program to ease into the next year and prepare for the sterner challenges ahead.

Klinsmann opted to revamp his approach before he summoned a 28-player group to Carson, Calif. to start the annual gathering on Monday. The decision to include a handful of regulars, omit some of the likely domestic callups and summon several Olympic candidates for this particular edition of the camp reflected the landscape ahead during a complex year.

The blend of experience and promise reflected the shift in orientation with senior and youth tournaments on the horizon. There are important senior team objectives to meet with the CONCACAF Gold Cup ahead in July and the fourth round of World Cup qualifying poised to start in November, but there is also a need to place the under-23 pool in the proper position with Olympic qualifying on the horizon, too.

"When putting this roster together, a lot of different pieces kind of came together and came into place," Klinsmann told ussoccer.com on Friday. "One, we definitely want to have a competitive group together that plays two friendly games against Chile and then in L.A. against Panama. We want to do well in those. The other big thought was, ‘How can we continue building the Olympic team cycle early enough to build that group towards the Olympic team qualifiers by the end of the year?’ That’s kind of how we put the process together."

In some ways, the approach sustains the same principles relied upon during the fall. Klinsmann asked his senior players to adopt leadership roles to usher a new generation of players into the fold. Those tenets carry additional weight here with 12 Olympic-eligible players included in this camp. It is a process designed to allow those players to soak up the habits and the standards of players like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones and then spread them through the youth ranks.

"I think for a younger player to come into the senior team environment, every day is huge," Klinsmann said. "Every day you will learn a lot on the field, but also in conversations with the coaching stuff and your teammates off the field. It a huge learning curve and having them in camp for about three and a half weeks gives them a lot of opportunities to learn. We want them to be sponges, we want them to ask questions, we want them to step it up, and we want them to develop personalities and kind of step out of their comfort zone and deal with problems on the field during training sessions. We also want to here and there maybe ask uncomfortable questions off the field. I think it’s going to be a nice learning curve for them; for some a little bit harder, for some a little bit easier depending on their personality, but a huge opportunity for all of them."

The berths for those younger players limits the openings afforded elsewhere, though. Klinsmann found room for uncapped MLS standouts like Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Perry Kitchen (D.C. United) and Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy) in his squad, but the emphasis on cultivating Olympic prospects and the inclusion of several regulars inevitably limited the scope of those sorts of selections. If Klinsmann eventually plans to dip into that pool to contemplate more seasoned alternatives prior to the Gold Cup, he must now squeeze them into friendlies later in the calendar year — the non-FIFA date against Mexico on May 15, perhaps — to ponder their claims during a more compressed window.

Including a raft of raw, Olympic-eligible players with a limited future in the full setup in the short- and medium-term reinforces Klinsmann’s control and ownership over the direction of the entire program as technical director. It offers him a chance to espouse his desired principles and use his incumbent players to shape them, but it also opens him to criticism when those younger players stumble along the way. The recent struggles of the U.S. under-20 national team at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Jamaica (one point in two Group A matches after a 1-0 defeat to Panama on Sunday) underscore the potential for scrutiny.

Altering the status quo always presents some risks and raises some questions, but Klinsmann proceeded along this path with safety and security in his corner. He now enters this January camp with a mixture of players designed to compete against Chile (Jan. 28 in Rancagua, Chile) and Panama (Feb. 8 in Carson, Calif.) and establish a framework for the Olympic side. It will take some time to render a verdict on the utility of the approach, but its digression from the normal service adds another layer of intrigue as camp opens.