The optimism that comes with a new year, a time of fresh starts and looking forward, seems to have special meaning for the US national team. This January, 25 precocious talents – most with minimal or no senior team experience – gather on the outskirts of Los Angeles for the Stars and Stripes’ annual New Year camp.
“It’s an opportunity to pick up on some of the work we did in South Africa,” said coach Bob Bradley, who was handed a contract extension - to the surprise of many - after his side were sent packing by Ghana in the Round of 16 at last summer’s FIFA World Cup™. “We have some younger players that we think, with time, can grow.”
Bradley has a wealth of experience as a university and youth coach, having led the US Olympic team on two occasions, and is renowned for finding diamonds amid the rough of youthful exuberance and energy. His work is cut out this time around, as 11 of his 25-man camp have no caps to their name and only one, Sweden-based Alejandro Bedoya, has more than five (and he just six).
“It’s like a pre-season camp,” said Bradley, heading into his sixth year in the job. “We will see how they respond to the rigors of training every day, and all of it points towards a game where we get a good picture of what they’re like when they step on the field,” he added, referring to the 22 January friendly against Chile, which will put these new boys very much to the test.
Following that first trial of 2011, the coming year will be a busy one for the USA. In addition to a March double-header of friendlies against South American heavyweights Argentina and Paraguay, they are scheduled to defend their CONCACAF Gold Cup crown on home soil in June, a tournament made more meaningful with a place in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup on the line. They also begin qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil with a home-and-away date against one of the region’s minnows in February.
The core of the United States national team will remain Clint Dempsey, Bradley's son Michael, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard. But Bradley senior sees the future with the eyes of a one-time youth coach. In his squad for the annual three-week January camp are a number of promising talents, chief among them Anthony Wallace of Colorado Rapids, one of 20 MLS players. “It was a dream come true. You never know if that call [to the national team] is ever going to come,” enthused the Brooklyn-born defensive midfielder, a veteran of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt and one of four players from MLS champion Colorado Rapids. His club team-mates Marvell Wynne - who played for the US at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 – and Jeff Larentowicz are also in among the defenders in the camp.
From the 2010 MLS runners-up FC Dallas (though recently traded to struggling DC United) comes Dax McCarty, a workhorse in midfield who lined up at the 2007 U-20 World Cup in Canada alongside Wallace. MLS Rookie of the Year for 2009 Omar Gonzalez leads a contingent of three LA Galaxy players, with Chris Wondolowski of San Jose Earthquakes coming in to bolster the attack on the back of a league-best season in which he scored 18 MLS goals. With so many youngsters in the camp, Nick Rimando is the old head. The diminutive, 31-year-old Real Salt Lake goalkeeper has long been respected in MLS circles, but competition from the likes of Howard and the raft of outstanding American net-minders has restricted his caps to just four.
There is also a clutch of foreign-based players under Bradley’s watchful eye, with midfielder Bedoya of Orebro back again to show what he can do after earning six caps last years. Mikkel Diskerud of Norwegian side Stabaek, Celtic's Dominic Cervi and Ryan Miller of Halmstads in Sweden were also called in, along with the late addition of Ukraine-born Eugene Starikov, who plays his club football for Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian top flight.
With all the challenges of 2011 to face, and an Olympic team to prepare for next year, Bradley sees this as a crucial time to bleed some youngsters. “When you combine what we will see in this camp with some of the opportunities that we’ll have in February and March, we can assess our strengths and weaknesses, and know how to put together a squad that’s going to give us a chance to win.”