By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 29, 2016) US Soccer Players – Two diametrically different soccer nations will meet on relatively level terms at StubHub Center in Carson, California on Sunday, as the USMNT starts the final week of their January training camp with a friendly vs Iceland.
After a vexing 2015, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has opened the new year with a more mellow approach to this annual winter gathering, incorporating feedback from players in terms of the length and structure of the team’s activities. This camp has grown shorter and less oppressive than was originally expected, and it seems to have benefitted all parties.
“They already have the schedule for the month, but we just confirm it day by day,” Klinsmann told ESPN FC’s Jeff Carlisle. “’You are your own boss. You’re driving it. If you want more treatment here, stay longer here. If you want to run out and do something else, it’s fine. It’s your camp. It’s for you.’ I think that helped a lot. It keeps camp really, really light and positive.”
Sunday’s match should be a good opportunity to show how that evolution manifests in on-field performances. Fans can expect to see a fresh, fit group pushing to make a positive impression on the coaching staff, with many on this January roster feeling an urgent need to turn Klinsmann’s head in order to ensure future calls.
After inspiring the world with their run past the mighty Netherlands to book a place in this summer’s European Championships, Iceland should be riding high. Even though they’ll arrive in Southern California with a roster shorn of many starters still on club duty back across the Atlantic, the USMNT can expect an organized, confident group who counter their limitations in possession with spirit and intelligence.
This month Klinsmann also included the core of the Under-23 squad that has a pressure-packed home-and-home Olympic qualifying playoff vs. Colombia in March, the last-chance saloon for a deeply desired trip to this summer’s games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Everybody came in here with great fitness levels, and we were able to progress pretty quickly,” playmaker Lee Nguyen – one to watch this year – told USSoccer.com this week. “The level has been high. Every day you try to improve, and I’m feeling that week by week.”
Will Klinsmann push the youth into the spotlight against Iceland, or perhaps wait a week and do so against Canada next Friday? Would a lineup hybridized between the Olympians and the senior squad improve the experience for all, or melt into a muddled mess? Those are two of the most immediate personnel questions at the moment. But a step back to gaze through a wider lens would also be of benefit this weekend.
The US (No. 32) sits just four spots ahead of Iceland in the latest FIFA World Rankings. Yet the gap in size, population and efficiency between their respective programs makes this proximity shocking – and for many American fans, aggravating.
The small Nordic island nation is arguably the greatest overachiever in world soccer today. They’ve stormed to a place at Euro ’16 in France – their first-ever major tournament qualification – despite a fairly harsh Arctic climate and a domestic population only slightly larger than the city of St Louis. It’s been fueled by long-range planning and a judicious deployment of both human and financial resources, a concerted emphasis on infrastructure, technical development, coaching education and local-national cooperation begun in 2002.
“A combination of excellent facilities and a legion of qualified coaches, along with the country’s size making it easier to mobilize all assets, have seen the nation of 330,000 inhabitants climb 89 places in the FIFA world ranking in five years,” wrote SI.com’s Liviu Bird last year.
“Seven full-sized and four half-sized indoor soccer fields have been built, along with 22 outdoor turf fields and 111 smaller pitches. FIFA also kicked in $2 million between 2004 and 2013, allowing players of all ages to take the field three or four times a week regardless of season. All the new indoor fields are publicly owned, meaning access is much easier than in comparable facilities that are privately financed and carry steep rental charges.”
As a result, Icelanders of various ages can play and improve year-round regardless of weather receiving instruction from coaches holding UEFA licenses. Even the chronic limitations of Iceland’s part-time top-flight league isn’t as much of an issue anymore. A virtuous cycle seems to have kicked in as the country’s progress gathered momentum, with the national team’s success earning its top talents opportunities in full-time professional environments around Europe.
It’s a system that managed to shift into top gear in little more than a decade, summoning nearly every ounce of capacity from its humble homeland. By contrast, the United States has in many ways made the strides of the past quarter-century despite its jumbled developmental pyramid, as much as because of it.
For all our progress in the beautiful game, the US remain a half-awakened giant in the global picture: A nation of enormous passion and potential which has yet to fully maximize substantial demographic and economic advantages compared to more established powers. For many observers, last year’s stinging struggles in the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Cup have only exacerbated the frustrations caused by these structural shortcomings.
It’s simplistic to suggest that an Iceland-style renovation would fix the USA’s difficulties. The two countries are just too different in too many ways. Yet Sunday’s opponents should at the very least provide food for thought at a time in American soccer history when expectations are rising faster than results.
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