Fans may call it “Camp Cupcake,” but considering coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s penchant for three-a-days, and his “work more, do more” approach to preparation, this year’s edition of the US national team’s annual January camp, which opens today, will hardly be a piece of cake for the 25 players called in.
Twenty-one of those invitees play in Major League Soccer. Two are based in Norway (Josh Gatt, Mix Diskerud), one is in Germany (Alfredo Morales), and one is currently between teams (Alejandro Bedoya).
In addition to being largely domestic-based, it’s also a mostly young group: eight of the players are younger than 23, and eight have never been capped by the USMNT.
This group will play a friendly against Canada on Jan 29, and all of the players will be trying to either carve out a place on Klinsmann’s depth chart, or earn a spot on his next roster — for the World Cup qualifier in Honduras on Feb. 6.
“There's a good chance of six, seven, eight guys out of this group making it to the Honduras game,” Klinsmann told Fox Soccer on Sunday.
So who will those players be? Let’s handicap the contenders:
For rugged qualifiers on the road in Central America, Klinsmann is going to select his most experienced players.
Any exceptions to that rule would have to be players he views as near-term potential starters, or guys who have some quality that could be particularly useful in a tense, tight game played in less-than-ideal conditions (ie., a free-kick specialist — think Clint Mathis in San Pedro Sula in 2001 — or someone who’s especially good in the air, or serves excellent crosses).
Of the four non-MLS players in this camp, Alejandro Bedoya has the most international experience, with 13 caps. Mix Diskerud has three, Josh Gatt one, and Alfredo Morales zero. Bedoya (right) has also played in the Champions League and scored goals in the Europa League, while Diskerud can add flair to the midfield, but it’s possible that flair will not be a quality especially high on Klinsmann’s list come Feb 6.
Gatt, meanwhile, is extremely athletic and quick, but just as green, and the uncapped Morales is unlikely to get the nod for a qualifier just yet.
Chances: Bedoya 25%; Diskerud 20%; Gatt 15%; Morales 10%
Arguably the most pressing concern for Klinsmann’s side right now is in central defense. Former Houston Dynamo star Geoff Cameron has laid claim to one of the spots during the past several months (even though he plays outside back for his current club, Stoke City), but the future of the other slot is up in the air as Carlos Bocanegra enters the twilight of his career.
Enter Omar Gonzalez: The 24-year-old (above) rebounded from a January 2012 ACL injury to help lead the Galaxy to a second straight MLS Cup win, taking home the game’s MVP trophy afterward. His chance to claim a regular role in the US defense starts today.
Despite the objections of some (many?) US fans, Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman has already claimed a regular role under Klinsmann. The US central midfield is a crowded place, but Beckerman has found a way to get on the field consistently.
While Beckerman has been a part of the Klinsmann era from the start, Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi (right) worked his way into the program in 2012, a breakout year for him. He appeared six times for Klinsmann, including in three World Cup qualifiers, and he was named to the MLS Best XI for the first time.
Zusi showed well in the last round of qualifying, and if he has a good camp, look for Klinsmann to bring him — and his deft passing and deadly long-range shot — to Honduras.
Eddie Johnson also showed well in the last round of qualifying, scoring two crucial goals (the first assisted by Zusi) to help the US beat Antigua and Barbuda 2-1 in October. He scored both of those with his head, and nine of his 14 MLS goals in 2012 came off headers, too.
Klinsmann will keep that in mind when selecting his roster for Honduras, where set pieces will be key.
Chances: Gonzalez 70%, Beckerman 50%, Zusi 60%, Johnson, 70%
MLS Long Shots
This January camp roster contains the past two MLS Defenders of the Year in Gonzalez and Kansas City center back Matt Besler, the 2012 winner after a season in which he and the SKC defense conceded a league-fewest 27 goals in 34 games.
A good camp in Carson this month could send the former Notre Dame star rising up the center-back depth chart. Maybe even high enough to warrant an invite to San Pedro Sula.
The US have fielded plenty of rugged, hard-tackling central midfielders under Klinsmann, but not a lot of highly skillful ones. New Sporting Kansas City acquisition Benny Feilhaber could provide that kind of option, along with more defensive grit and experience than Diskerud could bring. But again, there’s no shortage of candidates for the US central midfield.
In the absences of Brek Shea (injured), Chris Pontius (injured), and Landon Donovan (walking the earth, like Caine in Kung Fu), Houston midfielder Brad Davis (right) could make his case with the USMNT in his first camp since 2010. He’s got a deadly left foot, and he strikes set pieces well.
Chris Wondolowski has shown an uncanny ability to be in the right spot at the right time in MLS. He tied Roy Lassiter’s single-season goalscoring record last year, bagging 27 goals in 34 MLS games. But he has yet to reproduce that form at the international level. This may be his last chance.
Chances: Besler 35%, Feilhaber 30%, Davis 20%, Wondolowski 20%.
Other notable injury absence: Alan Gordon. The big man can be a late spark for this team, as he showed vs A&B in October.
Biggest roster surprise: Connor Lade, New York Red Bulls
Biggest omission: C.J. Sapong, Sporting Kansas City