Klinsmann, U.S. Soccer prepared to contemplate the future of January camp

BY Kyle McCarthy • February 10, 2015

CARSON, Calif. --

In the buildup to the victory over Panama on Sunday, U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann promised to revisit the future of the annual January camp at its conclusion.

The aftermath of a match generally does not lend to introspection on structural issues, but Klinsmann pursued the course with his usual vigor. After praising his players for their exertions during the month-long sojourn, he aired his lingering doubts about the status quo and raised the possibility of a revised direction next year.

“The January camp itself, there will be a discussion that we will have,” Klinsmann said. “Do we keep it in this way? Obviously next year, we want to be qualified for the Olympics. This is huge. Do we make next year an Olympic team camp out of it? That could be the way we approach it. And then we can schedule the senior team guys differently to start their preseason. We will discuss that. It’s based on what is kind of happening in 2016.”

This pragmatic weighing of alternatives emerges from four years of experience and evolution. Klinsmann arranged training spells for several players in the buildup to his first January camp in 2012 and heralded the possibility of adding more depth to the ranks. He praised the opportunity afforded to ponder alternatives with the Hexagonal ahead in 2013. He took the entire group to Sao Paulo last year to provide some familiarity ahead of the World Cup and trimmed his roster ahead of the friendly against Korea Republic.

Some of the lessons from those excursions manifested in the changes made for this year. Klinsmann omitted domestic-based fullbacks after selecting a raft of them a year ago and finding the pool below the desired standards. He reduced the number of spots available to MLS standouts to create room for Olympic candidates ahead of the qualification efforts later this year and scheduled a friendly in Chile with one eye on the Copa America Centenario next year. He summoned the majority of his experienced figures after leaving most of them out in previous years for one reason or another. He underlined the desire to supply his players with a firm fitness base with many of his integral fixtures now playing in MLS.

“We want to give them a head start into 2015,” Klinsmann said. “The January camp is always about shortening their break and giving them a head start. They are really prepared for their preseason now. They will be fit and ready to play a successful year. So it was the last three years we did it and it was the same this year as well.”

The tweaks -- particularly the introduction of senior linchpins now entrenched in MLS -- allowed Klinsmann to lean on his experienced players to indoctrinate the fresh faces and the potential Olympic candidates. It did not lead to a result in Chile, but it did pave the way for a cathartic victory over the overwhelmed Panamanians and provide an opportunity for some players to receive an extended introduction to the rigors of the international scene.

“The whole camp is going to help me going into the season because it’s a different atmosphere,” U.S. forward Gyasi Zardes said. “These guys, we work, work, work. It’s hard. It’s tough, as opposed to gradually moving into preseason. It really helped fire the engine, you know?”

Zardes embodies the primary objective of the January camp for most of its existence: identifying promising players capable of making the transition into the national team. The gathering presents an irreplaceable opening to evaluate candidates over the course of a couple of weeks instead of a couple of days or a series of league matches. It provides players with a chance to sink or swim under the increased strain without the need to produce an immediate response.

Several players took their opportunities over the years and transitioned into vital roles within the full setup. Those steps represented a vital part of the squad building process, even if the camp itself often led to disjointed friendlies against weak opposition and proffered limited practical implications for the full team. The information culled from a wide sampling of candidates and the progress of one or two players toward more substantial roles made the month of work worthwhile.

Whether it is enough now remains up for debate, particularly if the under-23 team qualifies for Rio later this year. Klinsmann must balance those familiar benefits and the inherent limitations of a process largely stripped of foreign-based players against his commitments to the program as a whole and the possibilities of making a broader impact with a revamped mandate.

It is a delicate calculus to manage with no perfect solution on the horizon, but Klinsmann said he is prepared to discuss the possible permutations with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and other federation officials before establishing the course for next year.

“Once we sit back and talk through all of the pros and cons, we’ll figure it out,” Klinsmann said. “But it could be very well an Olympic team camp next January.”

There are few guarantees beyond those discussions at this point. One thing remains certain, though: the gathering in January -- in whatever form it may take -- still has a role to play for the program as a whole. It is now just a matter of devising the most profitable way forward and pursuing it earnestly in the years ahead.


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