USMNT's January roster balances ambitions for Olympics, Gold Cup
A Jurgen Klinsmann roster never fails to spark debate. The United States manager has named 28 players to the squad that will participate in the team’s annual January camp, which includes a tough match against Chile away on Jan. 28 and finishes with a home friendly against Panama on Feb. 8.
Eleven of the players named are young enough eligible for the under-23 Olympic tournament at Rio 2016. The U.S. failed to qualify for London 2012, and Klinsmann has earmarked the Olympics as an important development opportunity for his less-experienced players.
“We definitely want to have a competitive group together that plays two friendly games,” Klinsmann said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A posted with the roster release. “The other big thought was, ‘How can we continue building the Olympic team cycle early enough to build that group towards the Olympic team qualifiers by the end of the year?’”
At the same time, the U.S. will hope to field its strongest team possible for the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The inclusion of some familiar names alongside the new faces reflects Klinsmann’s dual focus on these competitions in the upcoming year.
“Because we want to build now the Olympic team cycle, we’ve brought in a lot of younger guys purposely. But these younger players, they still need the leadership of the experienced ones,” Klinsmann said. “We want them to be sponges, we want them to ask questions, we want them to step it up, and we want them to develop personalities and kind of step out of their comfort zone and deal with problems on the field during training sessions. We also want to, here and there, maybe ask uncomfortable questions off the field.”
Those younger players, should they perform well during this camp, would presumably be in the mix for the Gold Cup as well. Klinsmann, using one of his typical motivation techniques, left the door open for the summer tournament.
“You’re going to see a lot of answers by the time July comes along, meaning the Gold Cup. You’re going to see how many guys out of the January camp make it into the Gold Cup roster,” he said. “The Gold Cup roster will be our top team, so it will be the benchmark. We will see how this transition goes, how many can prove a point.”
Here’s a look at each position in the 28-man roster for the U.S.’s annual January Camp:
GOALKEEPERS: Alex Bono (unattached), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Jon Kempin (Sporting Kansas City), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
D.C. United's Bill Hamid, recipient of the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2014, is recovering from a slight shoulder injury and had to be left off the list. In his place, recent Syracuse man Alex Bono, who just signed a Generation adidas contract with MLS, has been called in.
The two look and play similarly, as lanky, younger goalkeepers whose shot-stopping ability frequently makes highlight reels, and Bono is eligible for the Olympics. Sean Johnson, who joined Hamid on the roster for 2012 qualifying, returns to the U.S. despite a downturn in his performances over the past year or so.
Leader and stalwart Nick Rimando provides the veteran presence for the three players under his wing. He’ll probably start against Chile, while Olympic prospect Jon Kempin gets his first senior call-up despite conceding seven goals in 315 minutes for Kansas City in 2014.
DEFENDERS: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Christian Dean (Vancouver Whitecaps), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Perry Kitchen (D.C. United), Shane O’Neill (Colorado Rapids), Oscar Sorto (LA Galaxy)
Matt Besler anchored the U.S. back line at the World Cup, and he returns for his third straight January camp. Jermaine Jones joins him to provide a veteran presence and will likely start at center back, while Brad Evans can also provide experience and insight for the younger players.
Youngsters Oscar Sorto and Shane O’Neill played at the 2014 Under-20 World Cup, while Steve Birnbaum and Christian Dean were college teammates at Cal and were picked second and third overall, respectively, in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. Sorto, O’Neill and Dean would be eligible for the 2016 Olympic team.
A couple positional notations worth mentioning: Jones is still listed as a defender despite playing in midfield at both the World Cup and for New England. Klinsmann seems committed to his recent experiment that emphasizes his bulldog-like defensive ability. Perry Kitchen, who also plays in holding midfield for D.C., is also listed with the back line.
Klinsmann said LA Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez is recovering from an injury, which explains his exclusion. However, Matt Hedges is healthy and had a standout season for FC Dallas at the same position, and yet his first senior call-up still eludes him.
MIDFIELDERS: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (out of contract), Dennis Flores (Club León), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Miguel Ibarra (Minnesota United), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Marc Pelosi (Liverpool), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Brek Shea (Orlando City), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
Midfield is where the roster starts to get interesting. Despite struggling at club level, Brek Shea continues to receive opportunities, while Kelyn Rowe continues to play well — and get ignored by U.S. brass — in a similar position for New England. Amobi Okugo is another snub who has been deserving of an opportunity for a couple years.
Marc Pelosi’s recovery from a broken leg seems to be complete with his first senior call-up. The injury derailed the 20-year-old’s development for over a year until he made his return for the Liverpool U21s in April. He started three games at the 2011 U17 World Cup, which earned him his move abroad.
It seems improbable that Luis Gil is still just 21, but he returns for his second January camp with something to prove after a bit of a downturn in 2014. He, Pelosi, Trapp, Dillon Serna and Dennis Flores are age-eligible for the Olympic squad.
Flores comprised a piece of Club León’s Liga MX Clausura-winning squad in 2013-14, while Serna and Trapp have shone for the youth national teams and held their own in MLS. Miguel Ibarra was the NASL MVP in 2014, while Lee Nguyen was a finalist for the same award in MLS and led New England to the MLS Cup final.
Graham Zusi is recovering from an injury, Klinsmann said, while Kyle Beckerman seems to have opted out of this camp, based on the manager’s comments that he “wants to focus on his club situation because there are a lot of changes in Real Salt Lake.”
FORWARDS: Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Julio Morales (Deportivo Tepic), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (1860 Munich), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
The U.S. continues to turn over every rock and scrape every available resource raw to address issues on its front line. American forwards continue to struggle in international competition and leagues abroad, and former world-class striker Klinsmann continues to look for a player that he can develop and mold.
For now, that search has led him to Julio Morales in Liga Ascenso, Mexico’s second tier. Morales played 17 games for Chivas USA in 2013 and scored twice but has only made three substitute appearances with no starts or goals for Tepic. He played for Mexico at the 2013 U20 World Cup, but he didn’t make much impact.
Jordan Morris, who recently declared his intent to remain in college at Stanford for one more year instead of signing a professional contract, has been left out despite being a major candidate for the U23s. Bobby Wood gets another extended look from Klinsmann after earning four caps in 2014. Morales is the only Olympic-eligible player in camp at the forward position.
Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele spurned a Canada senior team call-up in 2014, holding out hope that he might have an opportunity with the U.S. He’s a target man in the same mold as Jozy Altidore: a physical presence whose technical ability needs improvement.
Gyasi Zardes gets his chance after a streaky 2014 MLS season, in which he benefited from the leadership of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane next to him in the Galaxy’s MLS Cup-winning attack. Chris Wondolowski and Clint Dempsey will play that role for him and the other strikers in this camp.