CARSON, Calif. – The expected youth movement following the United States' failure to qualify for the World Cup has taken root in the national team's January camp this year, but Dave Sarachan knows well how important it is to have veteran leadership around.
That's not why Toronto FC fullback Justin Morrow, Philadelphia Union striker CJ Sapong and Sporting Kansas City center back Ike Opara – the only players here born in the 1980s – are part of the group. All are coming off impressive Major League Soccer campaigns, but interim US coach Dave Sarachan prizes their experience, too.
He's brought in an exceedingly young group, with 21 of the 29 players on hand no older than 24 – 15 players are uncapped and four have just one international appearance – and is looking for the veterans to set a tone as the USMNT take their first steps toward 2022, the next World Cup in which they can take part.
“For sure, they're being rewarded for good seasons,” Sarachan told MLSsoccer.com after Monday's training session at StubHub Center. “They all had very, very good seasons, and I think when you come off a year like that, you have to be considered. [With] this being a young group, [it's good] having older guys that hopefully will [bring] a little bit of leadership and experience and lend their hand in that, regarding the younger guys.”
Morrow, Sapong and Opara are happy to do what they can, but their focus is on showing the best of themselves. None has extensive US experience – this is Opara's first call-up – and all, of course, want to play a prominent role going forward.
Never mind that come summer 2022, Morrow will be 34 and Sapong and Opara will be 33.
“I don't think my age is really a negative come 2022,” said Opara, 28, who won MLS Defender of the Year honors last season. “Just got to keep playing well. Nobody knows what the future is for any athlete.”
Sapong, 29, saw his first international action in more than five years in November's friendly against Portugal – he assisted on Weston McKennie's first-half opener in the 1-1 draw – and says he's ready for more after scoring a career-best 14 goals for the Union in 2017.
“I think how I approach the game, how I approach life is something that resonates with a lot of guys,” he said. “If I can continue to lead by example, I feel like only good things can come. I'm enjoying being in that position, and I'm still hungry, still looking to push my game even farther, and definitely see myself playing for four years more or even longer.”
Morrow, the oldest player in camp at 30, says he's “not really thinking about 2022 yet” but he plans to stick with the national team.
“I'm just so happy that at this point, with my age, I was called in, because I think I deserve to be here,” said the MLS Best XI selection, who played in two CONCACAF Gold Cup games last summer, his first US appearances in four years. “That speaks to the coaching staff. They probably have, after all that's gone on, some mandate to call in all the younger players, as they have. I'm happy they've given me this chance.”
Sarachan thinks everyone in camp, no matter how old, can put himself into the running for Qatar. But there's a lot to be done before then.
“There's going to be a few guys that will be at an age that could be difficult for them,” Sarachan said. “But the World Cup, it's all about timing and form. Who knows? By that time, even if you're a little older – you can look at our roster over the years with older guys, they still had value.”
Justin Morrow with a Hat Trick vs. New York Red Bulls
If playing mentor is needed this month, all three are up to the task, in their own fashion. They've accumulated a bit of wisdom over the years.
“I think we just come with the professional mentality,” Opara said, “but as I say that, all these young guys are here for a reason, and they've been professional in what they've done to be here. I don't know if they need any advice from us, [but] if they need any pointers, we're all here and we're all in this together.”
Morrow, a key piece in TFC's treble-winning campaign, thinks he can help some of the younger guys.
“I don't have as many caps [as some players here], but I've been in the league for awhile now, so I'm a veteran in that sense, and I know what it means to come out and compete every day to get better,” said the ninth-year defender. “And I think my experience in Toronto can be very helpful here in leading these guys.
“We don't play a specific system [in Toronto]. We change a lot. We change our system from game to game. To be able to adjust like that is very important, so the message I can bring to these guys is to not [limit] yourself to one role and don't see yourself one specific way all the time. To be able to change in the middle of a game, to be flexible is so important in this game today.”