January camps for the United States national team fall into two categories: About half are met with only middling interest, and only that much because little else is happening domestically at that time of year.
The others actually tell us something, usually because they arrive closer to the pressure points of a World Cup or World Cup qualifying. Jurgen Klinsmann's coming January camp is definitely among the latter, more intriguing variety. Klinsmann and his staff now have in hand the list of players to be invited; U.S. Soccer will unveil the list as early as next week.
Of course, so much of the overall curiosity is still about Klinsmann, this being our next window into his quirky thinking, our next chance to deconstruct just exactly which qualities he finds most desirous in players. It's also a relevant camp because Klinsmann's first four months in charge were spent mostly examining players already established in the program (even if some had been marginalized in the U.S. pool). For all the "new-day" talk over innovative approaches, only two players have earned their first caps under Klinsmann.
Further, most of the Klinsmann spots were handed to players earning wages in Mexico or Europe. Only five of 22 from the most recent U.S. roster, for matches against France and Slovenia, came from MLS rosters.
But players from Mexico and Europe (aside from the Scandinavia leagues) won't be available for this one, which means a January camp flush with faces less familiar to the program. So the door is wide open for young MLS talent, although for some them this could be a one-shot deal.
Further chances for newbies to dazzle will be precious and few in the near future. Just one FIFA date stands between now and the U.S.' World Cup qualifying opener in June. U.S. Soccer is doing little to knock down rumors suggesting that solitary FIFA fixture window is slotted with a friendly at Italy. Klinsmann will definitely summon his first-choices for that one.
The coming camp tentatively is scheduled to launch Jan. 3 in Phoenix before relocating back at the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles, then back to Phoenix for a few days around the Jan. 21 friendly against Venezuela. From there, they'll travel to Panama for a Jan. 25 friendly that closes Klinsmann's initial January camp. (Next year's version could become a December camp, by the way, as Klinsmann keeps adjusting things to reduce the domestic talent's winter downtime. But that's another story.)
U.S. coaches currently are checking fitness, injuries and any particular concerns (extra rest, etc.) that clubs may have for the provisional list of invitees. This vetting comes easier during the season but requires additional time when most MLS players are on holiday.
A couple of names you probably don't need to look for in camp: Start with Charlie Davies, who remains a populist pick in some fan corners. But presumably the supporters still clamoring for Davies haven't seen him play lately. Long story short, if you didn't know his name, he wouldn't have stood out in most MLS appearances this year. Heck, he barely even has a club at the moment, as D.C. United has declined to extend the loan from France's Sochaux, which apparently is shopping his contract.
Harder to say about Freddy Adu. Klinsmann's side desperately needs creators, but the young man's latest MLS stretch has been so underwhelming that Philadelphia declined to protect him in the recent expansion draft.
As for the players who do seem destined to show up, look for all those center backs who are dominating the shoptalk lately. While the scarcity of goals for Klinsmann's offense has been a concern, center back remains the area of highest personnel intrigue. That's because, unlike at striker, the U.S. appears to have more promising young options.
It should also be interesting to see which players spend more time with Klinsmann's senior side and which ones get assigned to Caleb Porter's first U-23 camp (an important one with Olympic qualifying just around the bend.) Porter picked the team for the recent U-23 camp in Duisburg, Germany, but Claudio Reyna ran the show while the new coach finished his season at the University of Akron.
So, a player such as Mikkel Diskerud may go to Porter's camp, some of which will overlap at the Home Depot Center with Klinsmann's proceedings. Could be the same for the MLS Rookie of the Year, promising Sporting Kansas City striker C.J. Sapong. We'll see.
Here are the top five players who have surely earned a closer look for the United States senior team, but who have yet to get one under Klinsmann:
1. Omar Gonzalez -- He's the big center back everyone wants to see in camp. Presumably, so does Klinsmann, although the Galaxy back line anchor said recently that he's had very little contact with the U.S. coach, who offices down the hall from the Galaxy locker room. Everything is arranged nicely now for the 6-foot-5 Texan, now fresh off an MLS Cup championship and holding an MLS Defender of the Year medal. He's desperate to wear a U.S. shirt, but told me recently that playing for Mexico remains an option if he doesn't fit into Klinsmann's larger plans.
2. Benny Feilhaber -- Under former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, the U.S. midfielder always had the talent but sometimes had trouble understanding that calls into the national team were a starting point, not an arrival destination. There were whispers that his ego sometimes outstripped his actual ability to contribute. It's not the worst of attributes for a professional athlete, but it's one that demands commensurate performance. Is this at the heart of Klinsmann's choice not to summon the New England Revolution man so far? Only Klinsmann could say -- and he's in Brazil for a coaching symposium and not available for interviews this week.
3. Geoff Cameron -- The Houston Dynamo man was having a big performance in the MLS Cup final two weeks ago until he got a knee twisted up on a desperate tackle near goal. From there, Cameron just didn't look the same. Still, Klinsmann was there that night and he surely noticed how Cameron poked away so many balls with those long legs in the first half, and how he attacked smoothly out of the back rather than hoofing wildly out of the back. If that doesn't stamp him as a "Klinsmann guy," nothing will.
4. Michael Parkhurst -- Concerns of his ability to handle the international game physically might be moot under Klinsmann, whose desire to hand repeated chances to Michael Orozco Fiscal proves that the coach values technical ability over size in the back. That plays to Parkhurst's strength; he manages through shrewd positioning and technical craft. Now 27 years old, he continues to be a trusted starter for FC Nordsjaelland in the Danish Superliga.
5. George John -- The FC Dallas center back and would-be Blackburn signing (a last-minute snag doused a summer transfer) was actually called into Bob Bradley's camp a year ago. But he was carrying an injury and was sent home to recover, and hasn't been seen around the national team since. Making another run at Europe in the January transfer window might improve his long-term national team prospects, but it would take him away from Klinsmann in the short term.