At this time last week, 25 U.S. men's national team players plus coaching and support staff were bracing for a unique January training camp in Qatar. U.S. Soccer had arranged for camp to take place at the controversial 2022 World Cup host, with an eye on getting a glimpse of what training and living in Qatar for a few weeks would be like.
Simulating the World Cup experience as much as one can used to be able to be accomplished through the Confederations Cup. That tournament has fallen by the wayside (and qualification for it never a given), though, so you could see what U.S. Soccer was hoping to accomplish, at least from a competitive standpoint, by bringing a training squad over, even if the majority of that squad may not wind up on an eventual World Cup roster and even if Qatar's World Cup has been clouded by allegations of bribed FIFA officials and documented human rights abuses.
Then, as they so often do these days, sports and politics intersected. The killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani put U.S.-related elements in the Middle East in the crosshairs–which suddenly included but clearly wasn't limited to the U.S. men's national team. Qatar itself may not have been a danger zone, but with security risks heightened around the region, U.S. Soccer made the call.
"Due to the developing situation in the region, U.S. Soccer has decided to postpone traveling to Qatar for the men's national team's scheduled January training camp," U.S. Soccer wrote in a statement, pledging to make a return trip to Qatar prior to what it hopes is a return in 2022.
Things quickly pivoted, with U.S. Soccer–which had already reportedly sent staffers and some equipment to Doha prior to the change–pushing the start of camp by a couple days and going back to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. It all leaves the U.S. men in a unique spot, with the need to recalibrate expectations and change the focus.
What they're left with is something of a more generic January camp, albeit under extraordinary circumstances. Gone are the atmospheric elements that were supposed to be used as preparation and motivation for 2022. The closed-door scrimmages planned–including one against Jesse Marsch's RB Salzburg–have been nixed (for what it's worth, Jurgen Klinsmann's Hertha Berlin is currently in Florida if they're looking for nearby substitutes...). Now, it's back to regular business, on U.S. soil, with a squad full of long-term prospects and returning stalwarts who have begun training after a logistical delay.
“At the start of an exciting year, this is a great opportunity to continue our process and build on the foundation established in the last 12 months,” USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter said in a statement upon the release of his squad. “At the same, there are a number of players getting their first exposure to the senior national team who will be provided the platform to make a positive impression."
If nothing else, the pre-camp fire drill can serve as a unifier for a group that is not really accustomed to being together. There are 12 uncapped players in camp, while new goalkeeper's coach Aron Hyde is fully integrated for the first time after appearing in a temp role during November Nations League wins over Canada and Cuba.
Hyde will oversee a quartet of goalkeepers looking to make an impression in the absence of more preferred options Zack Steffen and Brad Guzan. Bill Hamid's long-awaited return to camp is one of the storylines to watch closest, as he looks to unseat Sean Johnson for the starter's role vs. Costa Rica in the camp-closing friendly on Feb. 1. JT Marcinkowski's focus will largely fall with getting prepped for Olympic qualifying, while Matt Turner is the wild card of the bunch, one who impressed in MLS last season but is light on USMNT exposure.
In the positions in front of them, there's a running theme: A few longstanding player options coupled with novices. For every Aaron Long, Sebastian Lletget, Cristian Roldan, and Gyasi Zardes, there's a Sam Vines, Bryang Kayo, Christian Cappis and Jesus Ferreira.
There's also the dual-national element, with 18-year-old Mexican-Americans Julian Araujo and Ulysses Llanez both getting a look before they ultimately determine their long-term allegiances. They're both near the top of the list of up-and-coming U.S.-eligible talents, and their inclusion says plenty about how they're rated as future contributors.
“It’s always about opportunities, whoever is going to give me better opportunities," Araujo told The Scuffed Podcast in July when discussing his dual-eligibility. "I’m not going to close the door on Mexico, and I’m not going to close the door on the U.S. It's just that if Mexico comes at me, gives me opportunities, I’m going to have to take it, you know?”
It's Berhalter's U.S. that has provided the opportunity this time, giving the right back who started 10 games for the Galaxy last season a chance to show his value in a position where there are suddenly multiple starting options materializing.
It all adds up to one of the more unique January camps in recent memory, one light on veteran U.S. players with caps in the dozens and one more geared to exploring the youth and less-experienced options in the player pool. The roster selection, coupled with the roundabout journey to Florida, make this January Camp anything but the vanilla-natured experience it's grown accustomed to being.
"We talk all the time about dealing with adversity, and so this is just a chance," defender Walker Zimmerman told the AP. "Our schedule got shuffled around. Now we're here and we're excited."