Make no mistake, this is not a U.S. January camp like most others kicking off a World Cup year.
For starters, (in case you missed it!), the U.S. isn't going to the World Cup. Its interim manager most certainly isn't sticking around for the long haul and the whole leadership structure of U.S. Soccer is headed for a transition period, with the presidential election exactly a month down the road.
Making matters even more complicated, on the day U.S. Soccer revealed the camp call-ups came word that prized 18-year-old midfield prospect Jonathan Gonzalez was electing to play for Mexico instead of the USA. Gonzalez made that official on Tuesday, and regardless of whether he blossoms into an international star, the optics are terrible.
So, no, the camp that kicks off this week doesn't have its typical focus and isn't surrounding by the usual talking points. Instead of wondering who will use the annual camp as a launching pad to future caps, there appears to be more of a hesitancy to place an iota of importance on the training over the next few weeks, which culminates with a Jan. 28 friendly vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina.
That's not entirely fair to the players who are reporting, starting on Wednesday, though. So here, in no particular order, are the five most intriguing individuals and elements heading into camp as U.S. Soccer's world continues to turn:
It wasn't long ago that Rubin was the USA's teenage attacking star on the rise. He had made a move to Utrecht in the Eredivisie in 2014 and appeared to be in line for a regular place on the national team for years to come. Then injuries and club uncertainty derailed Rubin's career, and he's without a team as he enters camp. The 21-year-old Oregon native and former U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year surely has plenty left to offer, and perhaps a national team camp can provide the confidence boost necessary to find both his scoring stroke and a sound club situation.
Long overlooked after years of torching goalkeepers in NASL and MLS alike, Ramirez finally gets his shot in a national team camp. For those questioning the validity of his goal totals in NASL due to a perception of the competition, he answered them with 14 goals in Minnesota United's expansion season in MLS. At 26, he's not a prospect on the rise, but he can certainly prove himself to be a valuable contributor over the next four years.
It's 2018, and there's still no hands-down successor to Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. A rotating door of third keepers has spun for years at camps, both vital and not, and the heir never emerged. Enter the four contenders in California: Alex Bono, Cody Cropper, Bill Hamid and Zack Steffen.
The latter two figure to have a leg up on the competition. Hamid, at 27, is the elder statesman and is on the cusp of his first venture overseas, with Danish side Midtjylland after a career spent at D.C. United. Steffen, 22, was the breakout performer in the 2017 MLS playoffs and certainly passes the eye test when it comes to what you're seeking in a No. 1 goalkeeper. Bono has been stellar since taking the reins at MLS Cup champ Toronto FC, and Cropper has been in and out of the national team program over the years but has yet to achieve consistent club success. Camp will dictate plenty, but one should expect Hamid and Steffen to split time vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina if the next couple of weeks goes as anticipated.
Introducing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED TV, your new home for classic sports movies, award-winning documentaries and original sports programming such as Planet Futbol TV, SI TV’s weekly soccer show. Start your seven-day free trial now on Amazon Channels.
The burgeoning crowd
Much has been made over the 15 uncapped players in the 30-player camp, and there's plenty to be said for bringing in the new blood. But it's the crowd that was just starting to get its feet wet over the last six months or so that should garner more of the attention.
The likes of Tyler Adams (18 years old), Cristian Roldan (22) and Paul Arriola (22) could be fixtures in the midfield (along with 19-year-olds Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie and 22-year-old Kellyn Acosta) for years to come. Dom Dwyer showed his goal-scoring touch and work rate up top last summer in his brief pre-Gold Cup and tournament group stage opportunity but then was hardly heard from again. Like Ramirez, he's not a young buck anymore (he's 27), but he has productive years left in the tank.
(UPDATE: Dwyer has since withdrawn from camp with a hamstring strain and will not be replaced. That opens more reps in the attack for Rubin, Ramirez, Juan Agudelo, Jordan Morris and CJ Sapong.)
Instead of these players using camp to prove their worth ahead of a May World Cup roster selection, they're doing so with an eye on the long game, but they've got a leg up on their uncapped competition.
The true meaning of this camp
Depending on who takes the reins of the national team program, whether it be in the spring, summer or fall, talent evaluation of this camp could either prove to be very meaningful or have no meaning whatsoever. If the next coach and any potential technical director/general manager-type is a familiar face in U.S. Soccer circles, such as Tab Ramos, then this camp could be very indicative of who will be donning the red, white and blue in the years to come. If they come from the outside and are starting with a fresh slate, then the purpose of this camp will be to get 30 players in a national team environment and have them prepared should the opportunity arise again. But beauty is in the eye of the decision makers, and coaches will often go with their own guys or what they've seen personally, not what a predecessor or–even more specifically–an interim predecessor has chosen.
These are unique times in U.S. Soccer, and that much is reflected in the approach to this camp. We'll only know months from now whether these few winter weeks wind up having a lasting impact.