It's January 4. Players arrive into California, just six months before the start of the World Cup, and every player's mission is so quintessentially the same: become one of 23 players selected to represent the United States in the most watched sporting event in the world. Grueling training sessions await. Opportunities to shine are few. This is what they have been dreaming about their entire lives.
It should, because it happened four years ago. Four years ago to the day, the U.S. Men's National Team kicked off their road to Korea /Japan with a training camp in Mission Viejo, Calif. Even the number of players was the same, with U.S. boss Bruce Arena inviting 28 players to begin the process. Comparisons are inevitable between January 2002 and January 2006; there are some interesting parallels as well as significant differences to the circumstance surrounding a group of mostly domestic-based players vying for a spot on the World Cup roster.
A look at the January 2002 training camp roster, including each players’ caps at the time they entered camp:
Goalkeepers (4): Tim Howard (0 caps, MetroStars), Tony Meola (97 caps, Kansas City Wizards), Nick Rimando (0 caps, Miami Fusion), Zach Thornton (8 caps, Chicago Fire)
Defenders (8): Jeff Agoos (117 caps, San Jose Earthquakes), Carlos Bocanegra (1 cap, Chicago Fire), Dan Califf (0 caps, Los Angeles Galaxy), Frankie Hejduk (30 caps, Bayer Leverkusen), Carlos Llamosa (25 caps, Miami Fusion), Pablo Mastroeni (2 caps, Miami Fusion), Eddie Pope (44 caps, D.C. United), Greg Vanney (15 caps, Los Angeles Galaxy)
Midfielders (11): Chris Armas (35 caps, Chicago Fire), DaMarcus Beasley (3 caps, Chicago Fire), Bobby Convey (2 caps, D.C. United), Cobi Jones (145 caps, Los Angeles Galaxy), Manny Lagos (1 cap, San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Lewis (29 caps, Fulham FC), Brian Maisonneuve (10 caps, Columbus Crew), Clint Mathis (11 caps, MetroStars), Richard Mulrooney (1 cap, San Jose Earthquakes), Brian West (2 caps, Columbus Crew), Richie Williams (17 caps, MetroStars)
Forwards (5): Jeff Cunningham (1 cap, Columbus Crew), Landon Donovan (9 caps, San Jose Earthquakes), Brian McBride (50 caps, Columbus Crew), Ante Razov (19 caps, Chicago Fire), Josh Wolff (10 caps, Chicago Fire).
Only two of the 28 players were based in Europe at the time: Frankie Hejduk and Eddie Lewis. Neither were getting much playing time with their clubs, and their place with the national team was certainly uncertain. On the domestic front, there were 15 players on the January roster with 10 caps or less. So, how did this group of 28 fare when it came to World Cup time and beyond?
- 13 of 28 players traveled to Korea for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Chris Armas was selected to the original 23-man roster but suffered an ACL injury just prior to the team's departure. His replacement, Greg Vanney, also got injured and was forced to stand down
- Of the 13 players who did play in Korea, four began the January camp with 10 caps or less: DaMarcus Beasley (3), Landon Donovan (9), Pablo Mastroeni (2), Josh Wolff (10)
- 10 of the MLS players went on to play in Europe. Three have since returned to MLS: Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis, Greg Vanney
Amongst the 2006 group, 18 players have played 10 games or fewer with the senior team, and seven are looking for their first appearance. All but one of the 28 are plying their trade in MLS, with young defender Heath Pearce - who made his debut against Scotland on Nov. 12, 2005 - the lone European representative. Of the four players with 10 caps or less in 2002, three are in camp and have added extensively to their international experience, to say the least: Donovan (73 caps) has twice been named U.S. Soccer Player of the Year, and is already third on the USA's all-time list for goals and second all-time for assists. Mastroeni (43 caps) has worn the captain's armband, earned Man of the Match honors, and played in nine World Cup qualifiers. Wolff (37 caps) also contributed points in the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign and remains in the stable of U.S. forwards.
So with the team makeup and experience similar to the last go ‘round, what's the biggest difference between the 2002 and 2006 prep campaigns? Two words - the schedule. In the run-up to Korea/Japan, the U.S. played 11 games prior to selecting the 23-man roster, including five in their championship run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup. There were three international fixture dates, which the USA used to travel to play former World Cup champions Italy and Germany, as well as Ireland. The pressure of a genuine international competition combined with tough road games against some of the best teams in the world gave players both the experience they needed at the international level as well as the opportunity to demonstrate they could compete at the highest echelon. That formula undoubtedly helped the inexperienced trio of Donovan, Mastroeni and Wolff solidify their spots on the 2002 World Cup roster: Donovan was the only member of the team to play in all 20 U.S. matches in ’02, finishing second with 14 points (six goals, two assists); Mastroeni played in four of five Gold Cup games, including the championship, where incidentally Josh Wolff scored the game-winning goal against Costa Rica. Wolff also scored two goals against Jamaica in the penultimate preparation match for the World Cup.
By contrast, the U.S. will play up to seven games before Arena names the roster for Germany. Only one of those matches will fall on an international fixture date, which means not only will the competition be different from 2002, but domestic-based players won't have as many opportunities to interact with the European-based group that will comprise a big part of the World Cup roster. All this adds up to fewer chances for the relatively inexperienced players to make an emphatic case for their inclusion come June.
As Arena has often stated, he fully expects new players will emerge. It's why they're here. Injuries, fitness, form ... all these elements often combine to insert the unpredictable into any World Cup roster. The 28 men who start training this afternoon are absolutely counting on it.
ussoccer.com is the official site of U.S. Soccer, the governing body of soccer in the United States.