If this month’s US national team camp is a dry run for Brazil, surely Jurgen Klinsmann is well aware many of his call-ups won’t actually be anywhere near the Copacabana beach this summer.
Over the next month, it’s certainly possible a player or two cast from the same mold as Robbie Findley (2010), Jimmy Conrad (2006) or Pablo Mastroeni (2002), among others, will emerge, reviving the World Cup longshot-to-contributor storyline.
Or … they may not.
But what can be difficult to grasp with 23 places in U.S. Soccer history hanging squarely in the balance is that this camp may be more important come 2018 than it is in 2014.
Sure, the likes of Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Eddie Johnson and the rest of the roster’s veterans will get a taste for what their São Paulo digs will be like. There’s no doubt that’s important. It is basically the Klinsmann equivalent the US's 2009 Confederations Cup run under Bob Bradley a year ahead of the World Cup in South Africa.
But of the 26 players called – all but one hailing from Major League Soccer – the smart money says there’s no way more than a dozen will play a part in 2014. So what’s in it for the rest of them?
History says plenty.
Where would Gonzalez be without that first call-up ahead of South Africa in 2010? Would Kyle Beckerman, Geoff Cameron, Alejandro Bedoya or Clarence Goodson be the consistent performers they’ve evolved into over the past four years without January experience?
Would Carlos Bocanegra have evolved into the team’s defensive rock and captain without participating in a 2002 camp that saw him arrive with but a single cap? What about Tim Howard, who arrived in 2002 with zero USMNT appearances?
So while success in 2014 – Group of Death or not – will be the overriding theme this month, it’s worth remembering that January holds other significance for the various guys. For some, it’s a primer for years to come. For others, it's a just reward for years of service. For other still, it's an attempt to reignite a lost talent.
With that in mind, we’ve broken down the German’s 26-man roster into six groups to better understand what to watch for over the next 29 days.
Locks for Brazil (8)
This is about as straightforward as it gets. Barring some massive change in Klinsmann’s mindset toward roster building or a serious injury, these eight are almost certainly going to be among the chosen 23 come the summer.
The questions here revolve around roles. Where is Donovan’s best position for the US? Can Goodson break up Kinsmann’s preferred pairing of Gonzalez and Besler? Is Evans truly the best option at right back?
The answers to those questions may become a bit clearer in the next month.
On the cusp (4)
Many will argue that Beckerman and Diskerud – one a tried-and-true defensive anchor, the other a rising attacking talent – should be among the locks. They may well be true, but another month of sustained form in front of their boss’ watchful eye certainly can’t hurt.
Davis and Wondolowski, meanwhile, have some work to do. With both Johnsons (Fabian and Eddie) ready to step in on the left flank, Davis must prove he brings more than a cultured left foot from the run of play at the international level.
Wondolowski is, as even he knows, most likely playing more for a place among the alternates. But maybe – just maybe – the streaky finisher can join the 2010 version of Edson Buddle as an MLS standout who parlayed his domestic form into a surprise World Cup appearance.
In case of injury (3)
All indications are that this trio’s only hope for a plane ticket is an untimely injury the current trio of incumbents (Howard, Brad Guzan and Rimando). But there is still plenty at stake, especially for Hamid and Johnson, who are among the next crop of American goalkeeping talents hoping their time will come down the road.
Reward for domestic distinction (6)
Magee could be 2014’s version of Herculez Gomez, a crafty finisher and tactically astute pro whose career year couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Unfortunately, there may not be time or opportunity for him to convince Klinsmann he can contribute next summer.
The rest are all standout pros, but late arrivals into a World Cup group that Klinsmann has been grooming for years now. Depth at fullback is an issue, but are Sinovic, Harrington or Myers really viable solutions? Can Alexander or McCarty break into a deep, talented and diverse midfield? Those scenarios seem highly unlikely.
Reclaimation project (1)
He hasn’t been in the picture for a while now, but there’s no doubt Feilhaber has the chops to make an impact. He’s got vision in the midfield not many on the US possess outside Michael Bradley and a resume that says he won’t be overwhelmed by the moment.
With a year acclimating to Sporting KC’s rigorous fitness demands and a playoff run to sharpen his already formidable skill on the ball, could Feilhaber bring a jolt of attacking panache? The odds say no, but plenty could happen in six months.
2018 preparation begins (4)
These four youngsters are maybe the ones fans will salivate over the most, but let’s be real. Unless something changes really fast, they’re along for the ride. The training-camp trip to Brazil will almost certainly be the closest any gets to the World Cup. Still, history tells us each January camp preceding a World Cup includes a few inexperienced players that develop into USMNT mainstays down the road.
These four certainly fit that bill, and no matter how they perform in California and, perhaps, São Paulo, this could be the beginning of the road for all four at the senior level. Check back in this space in a few years.