U.S. vs. Chile preview
If it's January and the U.S. soccer team is punctuating an early camp with a friendly at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., then somebody is probably making news.
These friendlies early in the calendar year seldom create big buzz on the front end. Stockpiled with domestically based hopefuls from the fringe of the first-team pool, this camp and these matches are easy to overlook (beyond the U.S. Soccer super supporters, that is).
On the other hand, this annual January camp closer does have an uncanny knack for producing something newsworthy on the back end. Five years ago, for instance, Taylor Twellman set the supporters a buzzin' when he nailed a hat trick in a 5-0 win over Norway.
A year later, coach Bob Bradley made his successful debut as U.S. coach in a win over 3-1 Denmark. Jonathan Bornstein and Kenny Cooper scored in their debuts in that one.
Landon Donovan marked the January camp occasion with a landmark goal in 2008. He became the country's all-time leading scorer that day by connecting from the penalty spot in a 2-0 win over Sweden.
In 2009, Sacha Kljestan opened eyes by hitting for three goals.
So, it's certainly possible someone could kick up some news Saturday outside Los Angeles against Chile, which is bringing a side similar to the United States', stocked with domestically based talent and far heavier on youngsters than old-timers.
It's tough to say just who, though, as it's difficult to say which players might even make the 18-man game roster. Twenty-three players remain in camp after striker Justin Braun and defender Ugo Ihemelu were released to recover from injuries.
A few names are more likely than others to appear. Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream seem the most likely central pairing in defense. Ream, an MLS Rookie of the Year finalist last year with the Red Bulls, started the last U.S. match, a win over South Africa in November. Gonzalez was MLS Rookie of the Year the previous season. Besides, they are the only two natural center backs among eight defenders in the camp.
Bradley finds himself a little light on outside midfielders. Alejandro Bedoya (on the right) and Brek Shea (left) seem certain to make the roster, as they are the only natural players at those spots. (Not to mention the fact that Bedoya's six caps qualifies him as the dean of this group in terms of international experience.) Otherwise, Mikkel Diskerud, who had some nice moments against South Africa, could set up as an outside midfielder who leans inside.
Dax McCarty, Sam Cronin, Eric Alexander, Jeff Larentowicz and Diskerud are the choices for inside duty, whether Bradley opts for two holding midfielders as he has recently or reverts to a straight line of four. McCarty seems likely to appear since he also ranks as one of the "senior" members around camp, having been in Carson in January a year ago. Diskerud could possibly also set up as a second forward.
Juan Agudelo seems sure to play up front at some point since he was the lone goal scorer in the 1-0 win at South Africa. Otherwise, Bradley's options are Teal Bunbury, Eugene Starikov or Chris Wondolowski.
Wondolowski, last year's MLS leading scorer, was mostly an outside midfielder last year at San Jose. But he was a striker for the United States during a closed-door, mid-week friendly against Canada's under-23 side (a 4-0 U.S. victory), so he seems more likely to be found up front Saturday.
This 17-day camp was never about achieving a result against Chile -- although wins always make everyone feel good. Rather, this one was about introducing a bunch of newbies (along with a few "veterans" who had an appearance or two) to the speed and the expectations of the national team program.
The coaches have limited the running, agility and strength work in favor of more time on soccer matters, passing and movement at top speed and such. They had that luxury since, unlike some other camps, there wasn't an upcoming qualifier or some other important event pressing the need for match fitness.
"It's certainly not going to be a game where you'll see guys in the best shape of their lives," McCarty said by phone Wednesday from California. He noted that the Chilean players are probably in the same heavy-legged boat.
"I know I don't feel like I'm 100 percent fitness-wise, but that takes a full preseason to get up to full capacity," he said. "I'm sure you'll see some tired legs out there toward the end of the game. But we're all professionals and we should be able to handle it."
Marcelo Bielsa's side -- yes, Bielsa remains Chile's coach even though he had apparently resigned late last year -- is similarly thin on international savvy. From last summer's World Cup roster only Colo Colo forward Esteban Paredes has been named for the U.S. trip. He made two appearances in South Africa and did arrange a goal against Switzerland that was critical in seeing La Roja through to the second round.
If there is a star among the lot it's probably Biesla himself, a sort of tactical mad scientist who prefers an unconventional and attack-minded 3-3-1-3 formation. Unless the coach changes ways for a night in deference to a younger squad, it'll look for opportunities to flood and overwhelm the opposition defense as usual.
There's one more aspect worth keeping an eye on: Since so many of the U.S. players are new to the program and international soccer, jitters could interfere. The average age in camp is just over 23. Compare that to the average age of the World Cup roster: about 27.
Even if the result has zero meaning for the team, the individual performances matter. The reality is, some of these guys may not get many chances.
"There's always going to be pressure, and the higher level you go, the more pressure players are going to put on themselves to perform," McCarty said. "But if some of the younger guys were to ask me, I'd tell them that they should take it as seriously as any other game, that we should look for a result, but that they should have fun. The coaching staff saw something in each and every player here, something that got them to this point. So now it's all about having fun, helping to get a result and showing those things that you were brought here to do."