Most of us gaze with only passing interest as U.S. Soccer begins each year with a national team training camp in January -- a month ranking low in domestic soccer happenings.
These January camps may serve a purpose, but they mostly fall into the category of "covering all the bases." It's an opportunity that most national teams don't get, so U.S. coach Bob Bradley happily takes advantage. These camps are all about MLS-based talent, along with talent from Scandinavian leagues on winter break. So the bulk of the ballyhooed difference makers won't be around.
However, maybe we should pay a bit more attention to the 2011 edition, a camp shaping up to be more intriguing than most. U.S. Soccer spokesman Michael Kammarman said the roster would be released early next week (possibly Monday), with players reporting to the Home Depot Center on Jan. 4 and workouts commencing the following day.
This one sets up as a particularly important edition, and that won't be lost on a bunch of young players who will surely feel the jittery weight of it all. They can read a calendar, after all.
They recognize that another World Cup cycle is starting. The men who perform with a purpose over 20 or so training sessions and in a Jan. 22 friendly against Chile gain the inside track as depth charts are formed early in the process. The "process" in this case winds through World Cup qualifying rounds and eventually docks in Brazil in 2014 -- assuming all goes well, of course.
Look for this version of the January camp roster to be particularly young as Bradley, comfortable that he already knows what figures like Clarence Goodson and Chad Marshall can or cannot do at international level, kicks the tires on a wider sweep of young talent.
There's every reason for Bradley to get a good, long gander at a Teal Bunbury or a Tim Ream, for instance, but absolutely zero cause to summon a Landon Donovan. We all know what Donovan can do.
The talent on hand in Carson, Calif., next month will hope to accomplish what Jonathan Bornstein did four years ago. Bornstein didn't own an international cap as he landed in the 2007 January camp. He would soon debut and, long story short, it all culminated with two World Cup starts in South Africa last summer.
Neither did Sacha Kljestan own a cap four years ago when he reported in January. It didn't work out for Kljestan, who just missed on a World Cup roster spot. Still, he put himself in position initially through performance in Carson as the calendar turned to 2007. Similarly, Ricardo Clark had just one cap when he checked into the Home Depot Center in early January of 2007.
The camp ends with the friendly against Chile at the Home Depot Center, but in so many ways the important assessments will be done at that point. Obviously, how a young player performs against quality competition counts -- and Chile is certainly a worthy opponent. But Bradley will be intent on studying so much more.
The chance to gauge how young talent blends and assimilates during an extended period is an opportunity most national programs just don't get. The Americans benefit because MLS doesn't conform to the FIFA calendar, leaving the MLS men free at this time of year. Take that, Sepp Blatter.
So this is the "breakfast, lunch and dinner" program. That is, the players are together more or less 24-7.
So who gets along? Who are the likable sorts and who are the oddball outsiders? Worse still, who only seems in it for himself? Spending three weeks, day after tedious day, with a disagreeable sort is nobody's idea of a good time. If some unpleasant soul can't get along adequately in a January camp, Bradley certainly doesn't want him poisoning the well during six or so pressure-cooker weeks around a World Cup.
Then on the field Bradley and staff want to see who progresses on the performance scale? Which go-getter can raise his level over the course of the camp? Who absorbs new ideas? Who resists them?
Who responds to heightened demands? Who shrinks beneath them? And since everyone is looking to grade out higher on the curve, the competition adds weight to it all.
In short, the coach is making important determinations on who might be worth a bigger investment over the coming three-plus years.
Here's the important thing to remember about a January camp: No one has ever played himself into a World Cup in January, but they can certainly leave themselves on the outs.
Sean Johnson (goalkeeper, Chicago Fire): The 21-year-old Johnson got his chance midway through the MLS season -- and he nailed it. This would be another level, of course, but his solid work at Toyota Park says he deserves the chance for closer inspection.
Sean Franklin (right back, L.A. Galaxy): The program will soon need to replace longtime right back incumbent Steve Cherundolo. Eric Lichaj, advancing the ranks at Aston Villa, is probably in the lead. But this could be Franklin's chance to build on a standout 2010 Galaxy season.
Tim Ream (center back, NY Red Bulls): Who knows where Oguchi Onyewu's career is headed at this point, as the big fellow can't escape forgotten-man status at A.C. Milan? Carlos Bocanegra will be 35 at the next World Cup, so he can't be the central defense stopgap forever. This is a big chance for Ream to lap Jay DeMerit (who may also be in camp) or Clarence Goodson (who probably won't be).
Omar Gonzalez (center back, L.A. Galaxy): See above. Same deal. Gonzalez still has some technical issues to sort out in his game; this would be a great place to show progress.
Jeff Larentowicz (midfielder, Colorado Rapids): The hard-nosed Colorado Rapids man just passed a few others at his position with a breakout season (including his own teammate and former U.S. international, Pablo Mastroeni). It ended with an MLS Cup title, so his confidence should be soaring. Whether he has the technical ability to hold steady at the next level would be interesting to watch.
Brek Shea (midfielder, FC Dallas): The first man born in the 1990s to earn a U.S. cap knows he didn't do well in his international debut last fall against Colombia. So he'll be eager to put a fresh face on what U.S. coaches think of his abilities and his nerve about it all.
Alejandro Bedoya (midfielder, Sweden's Örebro): He already has six national team appearances, so Bedoya is hardly a newbie. In this camp he could be one of the more experienced players, so it would be interesting to watch him function in a different role. Can the young follower evolve into a leader?
Justin Braun (striker, Chivas USA): The powerful striker was a surprise call into last year's January proceedings, so his big season in MLS wasn't as surprising as it may have been otherwise. Braun remains light on the hype, but that's partially because he toils rather anonymously at a Chivas USA side that just can't find its footing. MLS defenders sure know about him; some liken him to a faster, younger, more athletic version of Brian Ching.
Juan Agudelo (striker, NY Red Bulls): Signs point to the 18-year-old striker appearing on the list next week. If so, his inclusion would be especially intriguing because of a concurrent U.S. U-20 camp happening in Florida. Agudelo will still play for the under-20s, but Bradley may want a closer, more personal look-see. Heads up, Jozy Altidore: this young man may soon be nipping at your heels.
Teal Bunbury (striker, Sporting Kansas City): Having chosen the United States over Canada, this will be the fast attacker's chance to improve his positioning among a gaggle of strikers who just can't seem to seize top spot on the totem pole.