Chicago is where U.S. Soccer's headquarters are based, but for all intents and purposes, home is Florida this winter.
The U.S. men's national team set up shop in Miami in December and is headed north to Bradenton starting Saturday for the annual January camp exercise. It'll be joined there by the men's U.S. under-23 squad, which is congregating for the first time in 10 months—and the only time before Olympic qualifying takes place in March—in a simultaneous but separate camp, though it's expected that there will be some overlap.
Roughly 120 miles to the northeast, the U.S. women's national team will be gathering in Orlando, continuing its work under manager Vlatko Andonovski. He has the task of whittling down the player pool to 18 for this coming summer's Olympic tournament while also preparing for the next SheBelieves Cup competition.
Three groups, three very unique sets of purposes and targets and three teams facing different questions to kick off an important year. Here's a closer look at a pressing matter for each:
How impactful will Altidore's return be?
With Gregg Berhalter calling in only 12 players—a select group of U-23s will join the senior squad for a camp-closing friendly that is expected to be played against Serbia in Orlando but hasn't been made official yet—there are limitations on what to try to assess. Tristan Blackmon's first call-up is intriguing to a degree, as is the return of forward Chris Mueller following his productive first camp and friendly last month.
But the clear focus is on Jozy Altidore, the two-time World Cup veteran, who, at 31, still may be the most ready-now striker in the U.S. pool. The problem is, he hasn't suited up for the national team in 18 months (he was called in for October 2019 Nations League games but was ruled out through injury) and was limited to 14 MLS appearances in the last year. In that time, Josh Sargent, Gyasi Zardes, Jesus Ferreira, Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto have been rotated through Berhalter's lineups at center forward. Even midfielder Sebastian Lletget played as a false nine vs. Wales. While global circumstances have made it difficult for continuity to be built, if you go position by position, you could still likely settle on a consensus group of U.S. starters for maybe all but one center back and a center forward. It's clear that nobody has yet to make an unassailable claim to the latter, and it remains up for grabs for Altidore if he can prove he still fits the bill.
Berhalter himself, though, has openly questioned whether he's a 90-minute player anymore, telling MLS's Extratime in October, “What I would say is just looking at the striker position in general, I think you have Jozy Altidore who is probably still the most talented that we have in that position, but he’s got fitness issues. Let’s call it what it is. He’s not fit to play 90 minutes, he’s not fit to play at the level we need him to. But he’s still an amazingly talented player, so our goal there is to keep working with him, working with the club to get him up to where he needs to be and hopefully he can get there. But we’re not sure with that, we’re not sure.”
Three weeks under a watchful eye will help determine the level of certainty. With Zardes out after what U.S. Soccer deemed a minor medical procedure, and with Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris and Mueller more suited to the wings, it's Altidore's show at center forward. January camp is typically all about the up-and-coming talents getting a chance to state their case. This one is about a proven veteran stating that he still belongs.
How much benefit of the doubt are Lloyd and Rapinoe given?
Out of action for club and country since last March's SheBelieves Cup, there's no telling where Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe are at both in terms of fitness and form. As accomplished as they are, they'll surely require some time to get back up to speed. So how much leeway will they be given playing among a group that has been building and evolving under Andonovski?
The manager, for what it's worth, doesn't seem to expect much drop-off from two players who have achieved as much as any who have played the game.
“Everything is documented. Everything they do, we follow,” Andonovski said in comments to reporters on Wednesday. “We have a pretty good idea of where they stand. In fact, both of them are a little bit ahead of what we expected them to be, from the physical standpoint. The only thing they’re missing is the team training. It’s good that we have eight or nine trainings before going to the match[es vs. Colombia to close camp]. Both of them are excited to get the minutes in the first or second game.
"Their minds are rested and they’re excited to be back in camp. I’ve been in constant communication with both of them, and they both can’t wait to get back to camp."
Nevertheless, with only 18 players going to the Olympics, some difficult decisions will have to be made, and Lloyd, who turns 39 in July, and Rapinoe, who turns 36 also in July, can't be considered locks right now. That list is likely limited to 13 players at the moment:
Goalkeepers: Alyssa Naeher
Defenders: Kelley O'Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson
Midfielders: Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle
Forwards: Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Tobin Heath
A second goalkeeper will claim one of the five remaining spots, leaving four places theoretically up for grabs. The rest comes down to how Andonovski wants to strategically build his squad, both in terms of youth and roster versatility, and should Catarina Macario secure FIFA eligibility to represent the U.S. in international competition, as she is on course to do, then that would add yet another element for consideration. Rapinoe and Lloyd haven't really had to prove themselves to earn roster places for years, but with Heath and Press remaining in Manchester and Morgan out with COVID-19, they'll have every chance to remind Andonovski of their capabilities. The next couple of weeks and a pair of friendlies could determine how much they'll have to prove in the months that follow.
Who will leave a lasting impression?
As stated above, this is the only time coach Jason Kreis will gather a squad together to train prior to the qualifying tournament, which is expected to be held in Guadalajara in late March. He may have the biggest headache of all the U.S. coaches given that it's really not known who will be available for selection for the qualifying competition and, if it goes successfully, the Olympics this summer. With clubs not required to release players for youth competitions, a full-strength U-23 team (which would largely resemble a full-strength senior national team at this point) is sadly a pipe dream.
Fortunately for Kreis, there's depth in the pool, but given that he likely doesn't yet know which of the Europe-based players will be available come March, there are plenty of contingencies that need to be taken.
So that leads us to this camp, where 10 of the 20 players participating were named to Kreis's initial qualifying tournament team 10 months ago, only to have the competition postponed due to the pandemic. That means there's ample opportunity for players to boost their individual stock. With a good number of them making the leap to the senior national team on Jan. 24 ahead of the proposed Serbia friendly, we're likely to get a better idea about who has accomplished just that.
“With Olympic qualifying approaching quickly, this training camp is a great opportunity to prepare ourselves and evaluate some new faces,” Kreis said. “While 2020 was a very challenging year, it was impressive to see so many U-23-eligible players make major strides on the field. Some of them have been involved with the senior team over the last few months and it’s exciting to now get our players and staff back together in camp alongside Gregg and his group as we prepare for a very important qualifying tournament.”