By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 11, 2018) US Soccer Players - The USMNT kicks off January camp this week, and it could be an interesting one. The reality is that other topics are occupying lots of focus and discussion around the USMNT program right now. With so many new faces called in during these transitional times, however, there’s plenty of plot lines to track over the next few weeks in Carson, California. Here’s five of them.
Who will add to their Cinderella story?
Many USMNT January invitees earn their shot via strong club seasons or attention-grabbing exploits at the youth national team level. Many arrive with sincerely feel-good stories in tow. This year might be a particularly strong crop.
There’s 26-year-old debutant Christian Ramirez, a long-overlooked child of Colombian immigrants who paid his dues in goals, lots of them, in the lower divisions for years before finally getting – and grabbing – his chance in MLS. It’s certainly a happy homecoming, and a well-deserved one, for the opportunistic striker.
Marky Delgado is another SoCal kid who worked hard to get here. He represented the USMNT at multiple youth levels before fading into the woodwork a bit. He was there for the end of Chivas USA, moving on to Toronto FC. Now he returns to StubHub Center an MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champion, ready to prove he can be the subtle glue of the USMNT central midfield just as he is for the Reds.
Marlon Hairston carries another inspiring backstory to Carson. He’s a rare USMNT prospect from the state of Mississippi and the first prominent one since Justin Mapp. From a blue-collar upbringing in Jackson to a starring role with the Colorado Rapids, the hard-running flank player has already traveled a great distance in this game. It’s easy to root for him to keep shining.
The list goes on – Cristian Roldan, Ike Opara, Nick Lima, Ian Harkes, Alex Bono, and more. Every player takes their own unique path to career milestones like this one. Many of this month’s participants have made impressive journeys to this point, whether things work out for them at international level in the end or no.
What will the "old guys" conjure up?
This camp is being billed as “a focus on the future” featuring “some of the USA’s most promising young prospects,” and that’s understandable. Yet several members of the group are veteran pros, and they too make for a fascinating tableau of resumes and narratives.
The “grayest” of the bunch, so to speak, are Justin Morrow (age 30), Ike Opara (28), and CJ Sapong (29). All three took respectable MLS careers to new heights in 2017 with notable team and individual achievements. All three look ready to step right into the mix and compete for starts or minutes in the friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on January 28.
Sapong was an unexpected standout in November’s 1-1 draw at Portugal, doing the dirty work up top that set the stage for that game’s young midfield to shine. His penchant for hustling and grinding pairs well with a quirky personality that should spark a laugh or two in camp. He’ll certainly be appreciative of this moment after going six years between call-ups.
Opara was widely seen as a “when not if” USMNT prospect when he turned pro in 2010. Arduous waves of injuries, several of them serious and even career-threatening, cruelly disrupted his progress, however. Last year he put it all together, going from dependable starter for Sporting KC to runaway MLS Defender of the Year winner. He’s got all the tools to contribute to the USMNT. The mere fact that he’s made it here should inspire his teammates.
Morrow’s advocates can make a strong case for this call-up being way overdue. He did earn minutes during last summer’s Gold Cup, but as one of the best all-around fullbacks in MLS for the past few seasons, he might’ve been able to help out past editions of the USMNT. The 2017 MLS Best XI selection is truly a secret weapon for all-conquering Toronto. It’s exciting to consider what sort of havoc he can wreak on the US flanks.
What is Rubio Rubin’s status?
Rubin is the wild card of this camp. US Soccer’s Young Male Athlete of the Year in 2012, the Oregon native looked poised to leap into a big role for the USMNT in the wake of the 2014 World Cup. Injuries and the natural challenges of life in a big European league sidelined his progress, though.
Multiple club moves in the past couple of years made it hard for him to establish any rhythm or form. Now, he’s a free agent looking for his next move. Rubin has questions to answer, of course. Is he fit? Does he still possess the quality that made him one of the country’s hottest attacking prospects not so long ago? Interim USMNT coach Dave Sarachan and his staff have given him a shot, and it looks like a bet worth making.
Media reports suggest that Rubin is on the radar of several clubs both at home and abroad. That represents both pressure and motivation for him at this camp. The Bosnia game could provide timely exposure in the midst of the customary winter transfer-window shopping.
Can the RSL kids keep climbing?
Several MLS clubs are represented by three players at this camp. Real Salt Lake’s group of Danny Acosta, Justen Glad, and Brooks Lennon is particularly intriguing, though.
All three are Homegrown products. All three are 20 years old. All three made key contributions to the USMNT U-20s in 2017. The trio spearheads RSL’s impressive youth movement. They're a relative rarity. Three players from one club in one age cohort rising so far up the system together.
They’re not quite “the Class of ‘92,” the group of six academy products (David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes) who led Manchester United to a sustained period of glory in the 1990s. Still, it’s a pretty impressive phenomenon that might provide a catchy case study in the ongoing debate about domestic youth development.
Acosta, Glad and Lennon each face their own set of challenges to earn their USMNT debut and carve out a lasting place in the program’s plans. They’ll benefit from attacking that task together, though.
What kind of shape are you in?
In the bigger picture, the USMNT faces a large set of unknowns. There are the upcoming presidential election and the hiring of a permanent head coach. The mooted idea of creating a program general manager or technical director poses another wrinkle there.
So it may seem like a waste of time to focus on formations, tactics, or styles of play in the countdown to these changes. Does Sarachan have more influence than it may seem in this regard?
It’s not too soon to begin laying out and demonstrating that the USMNT has some foundational ideas about how to play. The Portugal friendly showed that US players could be comfortable and effective in something other than a 4-4-2. That shows the program can call on modern players capable of executing advanced tactical concepts. This camp roster offers a diverse mix of roles and skillsets.
The interim staff can lay down a useful marker for all of us this month. Not with words, but actions and performances that show there's plenty to work with.
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