It might not seem that way right now, with most of the continent locked in an arctic freeze, but January is usually all about hope. The month kicks off with a party, then gives way to new beginnings, clean slates, and optimistic resolutions.
In the world of CONCACAF soccer, anyway, this year’s edition of January is no exception. There are roughly 100 hopefuls in the region putting their games on the line to advance their careers during the first few weeks of the New Year – 24 in the Caribbean, 26 in Southern California, and a final 50 (and change) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Let’s take a look at all three gatherings:
On Sunday, Major League Soccer wrapped up its first ever Caribbean Player Combine, which featured 24 young players from 16 nations gathering in sunny Antigua, hoping to catch the interest of MLS scouts and coaches.
Will we see the next Shalrie Joseph (pictured right) emerge out of this event? Whether we do or not, the new Combine is an important step forward for the league, establishing a direct pipeline to a promising well of talent.
Highest Hopes: Dominic Kinnear, Houston Dynamo. The veteran MLS coach has an eagle eye for talent, and a track record with players from the region, including Jermaine Taylor, Je-Vaughn Watson and Lovel Palmer.
Longest Odds: Kendall Allen, Montserrat. There are most likely several candidates for this distinction, but we’ll go with the 21-year-old defender who currently suits up for Aylesbury United FC. The Ducks, as AUFC are nicknamed, competed last season in the Spartan South Midlands Football League, the ninth tier of the English football pyramid. Hey, Jay DeMerit rose from similar depths to the World Cup, so miracles can happen….
Another nominee: Steven Davidas, Guadeloupe, mainly because he’s listed at 5’-foot-3, 121 pounds – three weight classes below Joao Plata.
The US national team kicks off its annual January camp on Monday, with 26 players – 25 of them from MLS – assembling in Carson, Calif., hoping to impress coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff.
After six days of training in SoCal, 23 members of the camp will take a flight to São Paulo, Brazil, site of the USMNT's training headquarters for the 2014 World Cup, for two more weeks of training. They’ll cap off the winter session with a friendly against South Korea on Feb. 1 back at StubHub Center.
For some of these players, the camp is a way to start building a fitness base for this summer’s World Cup. For others, it’s another opportunity to move off the bubble and toward the US’s 23-man roster for Brazil 2014, and for others still, it’s a chance to establish themselves as genuine national-team prospects.
Of course, anything can happen between now and June, and Klinsmann himself said that “what’s exciting” about this camp “is always to find another two, three, four, guys that will break into that inner circle of the senior team.”
So all 26 players probably have – somewhere in the front or the back of their minds as they start training in California – a vision of themselves boarding the plane for Brazil in June.
Highest Hopes: Mike Magee (pictured right), Chicago Fire. Probably no one in Klinsmann’s current group is hungrier than the reigning MLS MVP, who will be gunning for 2012 MVP Chris Wondolowski on the US striker depth chart. He recently described this opportunity as a “gateway.” Can he walk through it to bigger things with the US?
Longest Odds: Eric Alexander, New York Red Bulls. He’s a quality player, and he earned this call-up with a good season in New York, bagging four goals and two assists. But the US midfield is not thin, and he’s behind a lot of players on the depth chart.
MLS Player Combine
Finally, on Friday, the MLS Player Combine will kick off in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There, 50 US college players (and other invitees) will showcase their skills for four days, hoping to be selected in the following Wednesday’s 2014 MLS SuperDraft in Philadelphia.
Will any future MLS stars and USMNT contributors emerge from that event? If history is any guide, the answer is a very definite yes. For all the criticism NCAA soccer receives, the college game and the SuperDraft continue to provide a significant amount of talent for MLS.
Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, and Nick Rimando – all of whom are in the US’s January camp and are good bets to make it to Brazil 2014 – launched their careers via the MLS SuperDraft.
Highest Hopes: Patrick Mullins (pictured right), Maryland. The 2012 Hermann Trophy winner scored 36 goals in the past two NCAA seasons, and hopes to follow in the long line of Maryland players who’ve found success in MLS.
Longest odds: Predicting the fate of draft prospects is a dicey proposition – Zusi and Rimando went 23rd and 35th in their respective draft classes, and look at them now – so we’ll go with the other side of the equation and pick a team: the Red Bulls. New York have just two picks in the four rounds of the 2014 SuperDraft. Philadelphia, by contrast, hold eight.