By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jan 10, 2018) US Soccer Players - The USMNT reboot inches forward just a bit more with the arrival of the annual January camp. There's nothing settled for the program, but a friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina at the end of the month provides an opportunity to introduce new young players. Whatever focus there should still be on mistakes made in the past, there’s a need to look ahead to the future.
That future includes meaningful games when the CONCACAF League of Nations begins in the Fall. By that point, US Soccer will definitely have a new president with the expectation that the USMNT will have a new coach. That fits the election and end of World Cup cycle timeline.
What the USMNT has right now is an odd sort of freedom. USMNT interim coach Dave Sarachan called in 30 players, with the focus still on MLS. What's different is who got those calls. Sarachan filled half of his 30 slots with uncapped MLS players. That means a group of young players making a mark in MLS becoming new names at USMNT level.
If there was ever a time to be experimental, it's now. The experimental nature of the group is evident in its 24-year-old average age. Ten players aren't just looking for their first cap. They're participating in their first-ever senior national team camp. Names like Marky Delgado, Ian Harkes, and Justen Glad represent a longview approach to the process. Players already in their prime are less attractive to the program because they will have aged out of the picture by the time the next World Cup arrives.
There are a few inclusions that don't fit under the experimental heading. Sarachan rewarded some players for strong MLS campaigns in 2017. They're the veteran element. While they don't have much in terms of USMNT experience, they do bring longer pro resumes to the group
It also makes sense for Sarachan and US Soccer to send the message that they haven't turned their back on the traditional American "late bloomer". Even with a new generation of younger talent coming into focus both domestically and abroad, the USMNT will need to remain open to calling up players who reach the heights of their abilities later in their 20s.
Justin Morrow is the oldest player on the roster at 30 and a strong example of a player who earned his spot in the January camp due to steady play in MLS. Morrow was a significant part of Toronto FC’s triple-trophy season in 2017. He started 28 games while providing the kind of two-way fullback play that has become a staple of quality teams across the league. The last time Morrow got a look for the USMNT was in 2013.
Ike Opara had all of the necessary talents to become a top MLS defender and a USMNT player when he arrived in the league back in 2010. Whenever the Wake Forest man built up a head of steam and started to reach his potential, injuries waylaid him on the path to stardom. In his first six seasons in MLS, Opara never played more than 18 games and never started more than 15.
Last season, Opara stayed healthy and thrived as part of Sporting Kansas City's league-best defense. His steady play at the back brought an MLS Defender of the Year award, in no small part due to the 30 games he started. For the first time in his career, Opara broke the 30 game barrier. He's now proving that he always possessed the ability to be one of the best center backs in MLS.
At 28, Opara is not a young player who will be in his prime for the next World Cup cycle. His position likely gave him some more leeway in age than he’d receive as a midfielder or striker. However, no player who will be over 30 when the Hex round of qualifying for 2022 arrives can be considered an obvious part of building into the cycle. Opara, like Morrow, is in a camp where he might not clearly belong because every camp needs a few experienced hands. It's also because it seems strange not to reward an MLS player for success at the club level with a January call-up.
Opara is finally coming full-circle. While still at Wake Forest, he was a member of the 2009 USMNT U-20 World Cup squad that failed to progress past the group stage.
Sandwiched between Morrow and Opara on the list of oldest players in camp is 28-year-old Philadelphia Union striker CJ Sapong. Sapong is another player rewarded for a strong MLS season and because the USMNT player pool is currently thin on target men with Sapong’s recent history of success. Sapong returns to the team for the second straight friendly after playing in the 1-1 draw with Portugal back in November.
The veterans in this January camp will look a little out of place. The focus is undoubtedly on youth over experience. That's a new look for January, where recent camps have had the availability of USMNT veterans now in MLS. That said, the veterans gathering in Carson are there to do more than provide experience and fill out the numbers. They're also making sure their names are on the mind of whoever is selecting the team this Fall.
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