By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 4, 2016) US Soccer Players – March’s World Cup qualifiers vs Guatemala weigh prominently on the US National Team’s collective mind as the squad concludes its January training camp with Friday’s friendly vs. Canada. For the handful of Under-23 eligible players called into the mid-winter activities in Southern California, next month brings what might prove to be an even bigger set of games. The daunting home-and-home playoff series with Colombia to decide who fills the final spot in the Olympic soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro this summer.
The inclusion of those youngsters is one of the format tweaks Jurgen Klinsmann made to this January camp. Both he and the Olympic team’s coach, his first assistant Andi Herzog, are hoping it pays off against the Colombians, seen as slight favorites in the nerve-jangling intercontinental playoff ahead.
“We hope that it will be a huge benefit that we brought along 10, 11, 12 younger players in this camp and gave them really good, intense sessions, gave them a feeling for the next level of tempo, of speed, and all the demands, basically, on a senior level,” said Klinsmann this week in remarks released to the media by US Soccer. “I think if that hopefully comes to fruition in a couple weeks down the road when they face a very strong Colombian Under-23 team, then it would be awesome.”
Even now, nearly four months later, the pain is still fresh from the U-23s’ 2-0 semifinal loss to Honduras in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. That stinging setback sentenced the US to this playoff and recalled the humiliation of the program’s failure in the last Olympic cycle, one of the low points of the Klinsmann era. He himself has said that the inability to reach the 2012 London Summer Games triggered a cascading series of consequences for the players involved.
“If we don’t qualify for the Olympics, we lose another generation of young players,” Klinsmann told ESPN FC in October. “For players who are 21 or 22, the Olympics is biggest stage to show you can make a big jump at club level. Mexico won a gold medal, and it’s helped that generation hugely to make the next steps in their careers. If you look at our group that failed to qualify, have they maximized their potential? The talent was there, but they couldn’t get their act together.”
For nearly his entire USMNT tenure, the coach has made a habit of including at least a couple of fresh faces in every roster. This year, however, he’s seen benefits from elevating their numbers to more of a critical mass.
“I think in general it was a good decision to bring a bigger group of younger players with the other group of the older players,” he said. “Because the younger ones, they feel a little bit, ‘ok, we have our buddies around.’ So they create a little bit of their own group, and it’s good because you want them to feel comfortable, you want them to feel not too nervous.”
Given his well-established desire to attack complacency wherever he finds it, it was not hard to detect the mischievous tone in Klinsmann’s voice when he added, “I told them from the beginning on, ‘guys, we’ve got to keep pushing the older ones.’”
U-23s Kellyn Acosta, Jerome Kiesewetter, and Jordan Morris appeared in last weekend’s 3-2 win over Iceland. Acosta earned an unexpected start at left back. Klinsmann subsequently singled out all of them for praise. Now the question is, will a new and perhaps bigger set of aspiring Olympians feature for the senior team as they approach two games that could prove to be defining moments in their careers?
Klinsmann has been uninclined to show his cards in advance.
“In looking at the Canada game, we will have a similar approach we had with Iceland because we have two big objectives now: getting the older or established players into a rhythm, into a good start in 2016 because we’re just a couple weeks away from end of March games and World Cup qualifying,” he said.
“This is the goal – qualifying for Rio de Janeiro with the younger group, and obviously the senior group has to get the job done with Guatemala, in order to possibly already qualify for the Hexagonal. So looking at all those things at the table, it’s going well this whole January camp. It serves its purpose and hopefully they get rewarded at the end of the day.”
More from Charles Boehm: