CARSON, Calif. – The US Under-23 national team's playoff next month has left the widest shadow over Jurgen Klinsmann's January camp this year, far greater than those from the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and this summer's historic Copa America tournament.
The priority is getting to the Rio 2016 Olympics, and the inclusion of a dozen U-23 players among a mix of full national team core players and those hopeful to stick with Klinsmann's crew could provide the advantage needed to overcome Colombia and join the Olympics field.
Failure to qualify for the 2012 London Games has heightened expectations, and because neither the US nor Colombia are likely to gather their groups again before the meetings March 25 in Barranquilla and March 29 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, the past month's work at StubHub Center has been vital.
“Anytime you get to set up something like this, mixed with the full national team and Jurgen and some of our core players with the full national team, it's only going to grow our group, as well ...,” Columbus midfielder Wil Trapp, the U-23 captain, told MLSsoccer.com. “It's very important for the chemistry of the group, for preparing for what's coming in [March] against Colombia, and assimilating the new guys into the group, getting them on the same page as those that have been in prior.”
Klinsmann and U-23 coach Andreas Herzog initially called in 11 U-23 players – all but one based in MLS – then added Chicago Fire draftee Brandon Vincent after San Jose's Fatai Alashe and Marc Pelosi withdrew with injuries. Five, plus Alashe and Pelosi, were part of the team during October's CONCACAF qualifying tournament, when a semifinal loss to Honduras forced the Yanks into this playoff. Vincent, FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta, who went the distance in Sunday's 3-2 win over Iceland, and Vancouver's Tim Parker received their first U-23 call-ups.
“I don't have the whole team together because we would have to get release of players from Europe, but we have 10, 11 players here, and that's really good for me ...,” Herzog said ahead of Friday night's friendlyagainst Canada at StubHub Center (10:15 pm ET; FS1, UniMas, UDN). “They have a chance to train every day on the highest level. Training with Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Jozy Altidore, Gyasi Zardes – it's huge for my players, and their shape is getting better and better. They look good against players like Michael or Jermaine or Jozy, and that's very good for this young group.”
Midfielder Perry Kitchen, who was part of the 2012 group, calls the opportunity “a huge advantage” heading into the Colombia games.
“They're training with top, top guys in the country, and they're all good players,” he said. “You can't tell a U-23 from a full-team guy right now, you know?”
The 2012 experience still weighs heavily on those who took part. The US blew out Cuba in its qualifying opener for London, then lost a 2-0 stunner to Canada. El Salvador needed only a draw in the group finale to move on – and end the Yanks' run – and got it when Jaime Alas forged a 3-3 tie deep into stoppage.
“It was very disappointing,” said midfielder Mix Diskerud. “It took a week or two for me to kind of get over it. Devastating. 'Cause I feel like we had a very good team and we were playing very good soccer at times, but then at crucial moments we weren't able to execute.
“I hope these guys have kind of learned from what we did wrong.”
Kitchen says that “all I can tell them is look, guys, we didn't get the job done. At the end of the day, that's all that the fans [and] all the players care about. Did you go, did you do well, and we didn't.”
Klinsmann believes the group bought into the hype about how good it was. Agudelo, Shea and Teal Bunbury had already featured in adidas commercials, and the team “thought already [they] were there.”
“They lost, completely, ground before they actually qualified,” Klinsmann said. “One player told me, 'Coach, I saw myself in all these commercials ...,' at the age of 20, 21. And I understand that, too.
“We're going to help every player coming through, but don't shoot them through your marketing department. Don't call them senior national team players [when they] only come into 'January' camp. We help the prospects coming in and tell them where they are, they talk to their coaches and everything, but they are not senior players. It's an identification camp.”
The US were expected to qualify for Rio last fall, when they romped through their first-round group in the CONCACAF eliminations, then stumbled to a 2-0 loss to Honduras in the semis. Only two nations – Mexico and Honduras, same as 2012 – received a Rio bid, so the US had to beat Canada to reach the playoff.
“We as players, it's everything to us,” Trapp said. “When you're a kid, you watch the Olympics, and it's like, man, how awesome would it be to represent the United States of America at the Olympics. You just don't get that opportunity.
“We had that chance. We slipped up in qualifying – we know that – but we've got a second chance against Colombia. There's no easy games, period. With such a big prize at stake, they're going to be throwing everything they have, but we will be doing the same.”
Colombia finished second to Argentina in last year's South American Youth Championship, the U-20 tournament that determined CONMEBOL's Olympic companion for host Brazil, and have a terrifically talented player pool featuring Rennes midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero, Deportivo Cali defender Helibelton Palacios, River Plate defender Eder Alvarez Balanta and Orlando City SC midfielder Cristian Higuita.
Herzog doesn't want his team's thoughts on 2012 – or on the Honduras loss.
“I want them a little bit don't think too much,” he said. “Just play with your instincts, with a lot of passion, and use your brain like we talk about and stick to the game plan. If they think too much, maybe then already it's a lot of pressure. I have to find the right balance, putting pressure on the team but keep the pressure away from them.”