The U.S. national team, which is barely a team at this point, will kick off this World Cup year without a World Cup at a January camp defined by last fall’s qualifying failure.
There are no big games for which to prepare and there’s no permanent coach. As a result, this is a program with very little structure or long-term direction. Former assistant Dave Sarachan, who led the USA at November’s friendly in Portugal following Bruce Arena’s resignation, will preside over the squad of 30 campers announced Monday. They’ll practice for two-plus weeks in Los Angeles (starting Thursday) before hosting Bosnia-Herzegovina on Jan. 28. And there’s flux even within the flux, as The Washington Post reported Sunday that two of Sarachan’s assistants, Pat Noonan (Philadelphia Union) and Kenny Arena (Los Angeles FC), likely will skip camp after accepting jobs at MLS clubs.
Sarachan, 63, has little chance of ever shedding the “interim” tag, and his permanent replacement won’t be identified for a while. U.S. Soccer’s recruitment and hiring process probably will be reshaped by whomever wins the federation’s hotly-contested presidential election next month. Plus, the pool of coaching candidates will remain undefined until after the World Cup. As a result, the most Sarachan can do is offer a few weeks of decent training to prospects who might benefit during the long MLS offseason. The big picture will be painted by others.
“The January camp is the start of a new cycle,” Sarachan said. “It’s a long journey forward, but this is the first step starting in 2018 for the program and for these players to now get experience at this level. The hope is that over the course of 18 days, we can introduce these players to what it’s like to be part of the national team, the level at which they’re going to push one another and finishing up with a game against Bosnia. All of that will play into their experience as they move forward in their careers…”
Had the USA qualified for the World Cup, this camp roster would look vastly different. Very few of the names unveiled Monday would’ve been in contention for a seat on the flight to Russia. Instead, as Sarachan said, this camp is about the soft launch of a new era. Fifteen players—half the squad, is uncapped at the senior level. Ten have never attended a full national team camp and 21 players are 24 years of age or younger. Only three men—Gyasi Zardes (37), Juan Agudelo (27) and Jordan Morris (24)—have earned more than 15 caps.
“We clearly feel that we want to have a look at these players that have the chance to be a part of the national team for a number of years to come,” Sarachan said. “We’re trying to bring in players that are coming off good seasons, are at a good age for the future, and to give the opportunity to those that have earned that right to be a part of the program.
“Obviously, this is a unique January camp in that we’re solely preparing for the future and to give opportunity to players that have a future in the program,” he continued. “We didn’t bring in a lot of the veteran players for that reason.”
Here’s a look at the 30 men who will set out on the “long journey forward.”
Alex Bono (Toronto FC), Bill Hamid (FC Midtjylland), Cody Cropper (New England Revolution), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew)
Hamid, 27, is the only camper on the books of a European club. He’s yet to play for Danish Superliga leader Midtjylland, however, having just finalized terms at the conclusion of the MLS season. U.S. Soccer requested the services of several players based abroad, but Hamid was the only one given permission to make the trip to California. The 2014 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year played the second half of the 1-1 draw against Portugal and will be the favorite to start against Bosnia.
Steffen, 22, was outstanding during the Crew’s MLS Cup playoff run and has played for the USA at the U-18, U-20 and U-23 levels.
Danny Acosta (Real Salt Lake), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Walker Zimmerman (Los Angeles FC)
Morrow, an MLS Best XI selection, is the most experienced member of a defensive corps that boasts all of five caps combined. Newly-crowned MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara will have a crack at his long-awaited first cap a few weeks before turning 29. He could partner in central defense with Walker Zimmerman, who becomes LAFC’s first USA call-up, or 20-year-old Justen Glad, who’s a rising star at RSL.
Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Russell Canouse (D.C. United), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC), Marlon Hairston (Colorado Rapids), Ian Harkes (D.C. United), Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Adams and Roldan arguably are the men with the most obvious international upside, although Arriola had a couple good moments under Arena and Lennon, an attacker, certainly is one to watch. The 20-year-old tallied three goals and four assists for RSL in 2017.
The list of midfielders is as notable for who isn’t mentioned. Only three U.S. players had more caps last year than Kellyn Acosta’s 13, but he won’t be in L.A., because FC Dallas opted not to release him (MLS preseason begins Jan. 22). If anything highlights the uncertain state of the men’s program, it’s the refusal of an MLS club to allow its players to participate.
Also absent is Jonathan Gonzalez, the 18-year-old Californian who emerged last fall for Liga MX runner-up Monterrey. The Mexican season started last weekend, so he very well could’ve been unavailable anyway. But Univision’s Monday morning report that Gonzalez has chosen to ask FIFA for a one-time switch so he can represent Mexico is yet another sign that the qualifying fallout, along with the lack of a long-term direction or foundation for the American men, comes with substantial ramifications. It’s one thing to miss out on Gonzalez this month because Monterrey said ‘no.’ It’s an entirely different thing to miss out forever because he did.
Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Orlando City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Christian Ramirez (Minnesota United), Rubio Rubin (Unattached), C.J. Sapong (Philadelphia Union)
This is by far the most experienced and accomplished portion of the roster. Morris is a CONCACAF Gold Cup and MLS Cup winner who would’ve been in frame for a trip to the World Cup, while Agudelo, Dwyer and Sapong are veteran pros who’ve proven they can score at the league level. Sapong played very well against Portugal. Ramirez is the only uncapped player, but his 14-goal season in Minnesota set the stage for a deserved camp invite.