Mission accomplished nevertheless, in the eyes of interim head coach Anthony Hudson.
“Overall I think we achieved our objectives,” said the Englishman after handing senior international debuts to 12 players across this week’s two matches, a new January camp record. “There's a bunch of players in there that we wanted to see, we wanted to see with us, we wanted to see in competitive games. And that's given us the opportunity to do that.
“The objective was to look at players, give players a chance, players we've been monitoring, and then also be able to balance the group so we get through the two games.”
Tolkin, Paxten impress
With 2022 FIFA World Cup veteran Walker Zimmerman the only player to start both of this week’s games, everyone on the roster besides young FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Roman Celentano saw the pitch this month. On Saturday the night’s two debutants, Philadelphia Union product Paxten Aaronson and John Tolkin of the New York Red Bulls, caught the eye with their energy and intensity in a clash with a surprisingly feverish tone to it.
“First of all, I love him around the place. I love him in camp. He's just got such a big personality. And then you see his personality on the field – he's incredibly brave,” said Hudson of Tolkin, hinting that the 20-year-old left back is in contention to be called up when the full USMNT squad convenes for Concacaf Nations League play in March, as are attackers Brandon Vazquez and Alejandro Zendejas.
“He's an aggressive player, He's a physical player. I don't think this situation fazed him at all; he embraced it. He's a very confident kid. So he's one that we're glad we've seen, because he's impressed us before when he's been in our pre-World Cup camp.”
Paxten Aaronson, whose older brother Brenden is already an established US regular, showed the relentless running and spark of inspiration that led Eintracht Frankfurt to pay the Union $4 million-plus in a transfer deal earlier this winter. He just failed to reward himself by finishing one of the several chances the Yanks carved out in this open, often chaotic occasion, made memorable by the passionate Colombia supporters who flocked to Dignity Health Sports Park.
“The way I saw it from the touchline, it could easily have been a qualifying game. Such was what the players were putting into it, what both teams were putting into it. It was a very intense game,” said Hudson. “I don't think there was any moment in the game where the game just went very slow and calm. So it was a game full of transition. It was a quick game.
“I felt in the first half, there was probably a lot more back and forward and transition, and we changed a few things at halftime just to get a little bit more stability. But yeah, it's a really good test for our players, especially some of the younger guys that we've mentioned. This will be a great experience for them.”
Prioritizing longer-term goals like player identification and introducing newcomers to this level was also something of a necessity given the constraints in place.
More to come in March
Unlike most January gatherings, where a long, fitness-centric buildup to the games provides the coaching staff with extensive touch points and a foundation for working on more advanced concepts, Hudson & Co. had only eight days this time – and amid dramatic organizational turnover, as the departures of sporting director Earnie Stewart and general manager Brian McBride were announced on Thursday.
That forced a focus on getting everyone minutes and protecting them from over-exertion, given most are still at preseason levels of fitness.
Fortified by the knowledge that he’ll likely be steering this ship for several months to come as new director-level leadership is selected by U.S. Soccer executives, Hudson will now pivot towards the FIFA international window in late March, when he’ll be able to call on the USMNT’s European-based mainstays, and perhaps a few of January’s standouts.
“My focus, until I'm told otherwise – I'm going to do my very best for the team, for the players,” said the interim boss. “I really feel privileged to be part of the last four years. We've just had a talk in the locker room, we've got an amazing group of players. A large number of players are not here, but I can assure you, the players love playing for this team. They love coming to represent the national team and to work with a group of players like that is a real privilege.
“My responsibility, until I'm told otherwise, I'm going to do all I can to help the players, help try and improve the team, help try and take the style of play forward, help the staff. I just want to keep improving things. That's where my focus is.”