The annual January camp is a rarity amongst national teams around the world. No where else does national team coaching staff have the chance to observe talent up close for such an extended period of time, carefully evaluating all aspects of a player’s characteristics, from skill level to fitness, to work habits and mentality. It’s a great opportunity to assess potential, and history shows that is has born fruit. From those that participated in January camps through the last cycle, a total of 10 were chosen to represent the United States at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Coaches aren’t the only ones who benefit. For the players, it’s an invaluable chance to show their stuff, particularly for those on the precipice of an international career. It’s a pressure-filled time, fueled by the intensity of the effort in the training sessions and the desire to make a good impression.
“The opportunity to play on the national team is something that gets put on a pedestal, and you are dealing with that pressure,” said Clarence Goodson, who had his first January camp experience in 2008 and went on to make the squad for South Africa. “I think that’s why the first few days are a little bit crazy. Guys are flying around, and the soccer is not always best. People are bit nervous, and trying to show well. As they settle down, you find your niche and your legs and play the way that got you there in the first place.”
For Heath Pearce, the camps provided a window into what life at the international level required. “There’s certainly a lot of pressure – which in itself is a learning experience. You find out what is required for you to be successful at highest levels,” Pearce said. “You have to be prepared and bring 100% every day. Even if you aren’t there when you start, you understand afterwards that that effort is what it takes.”
It can be especially nerve wracking for the neophytes, who are entering an environment they have dreamed about but don’t quite know what to expect. Like many before, Pearce found veterans to be his guide.
“I was 21 in my first January camp, and I was really nervous,” he recalled. “I had gotten my first cap in November of 2005 against Scotland. In camp, guys like Jimmy Conrad, Ben Olsen, and Eddie Pope were invaluable in how they helped. They showed me the ropes both on and off the field. I grew a lot as a player.”
And it’s not just the environment that can be intimidating. On the field, everything is simply happening at higher level, and the ability to adjust is critical.
“The play is quick, and players are strong on the ball, said Goodson. “Every step the pace of play is faster, the decisions are faster. If you can’t adapt, you don’t stay at that level very long.”
One the benefits of the national team experience is the ability for players to bring what they have learned back to their club environments. According to Pearce, it’s not only a benefit – it’s a responsibility.
“You have to bring the mentality back to your everyday environment – not just for you but for your teammates. You have to raise the bar and expectations of people around you. It starts from the top and goes down, and hopefully it trickles down to the younger players. At this level, the margin of error is so small, and we have to bring the right focus every day if we want to continue to grow.”
With all the pressure, the intensity and the physical demands of the January camp, Goodson believes it’s the perfect stage for younger players to make their mark.
“It’s really good situation for young players to establish themselves. They get an extended look from the coaching staff. It’s a tough camp, and it’s not going to be easy. In many ways, it’s a mental test to see how people react physically and mentally in a tough camp. If you do well, you get called back. What more can you ask?”