A quarter of the way into January camp, two goals are distinct: continue to develop experienced leaders who can conduct the team moving forward and identify new talent that can grow into bigger roles within the U.S. MNT system.
Since the start of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure, there has been increased focus on synergy and balance across U.S. Soccer programming, seeking full-integration of messaging and system from youth sides up through the senior team. As the U-20s are in qualification for this summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup and the U-23s have recently finished a training camp in Brazil, U.S. MNT head coach and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann sees the senior team as the engine driving it all.
“It’s the locomotive of development of the sport,” Klinsmann said in the midst of the team's annual January training camp. “Hopefully, we’re going to go full steam.”
The current January Camp roster is a manifestation of this design. The group strikes a balance among World Cup veterans and players on the cusp of bigger roles, gaining valuable experience. Then there are also young players eager to impress in anticipation of upcoming matches with Chile and Panama, as well as the U-23 MNT’s Olympic qualifying run.
While it would be too much to expect a group essentially just beginning its preseason to come together and fire on all cylinders, Klinsmann believes this early building phase will provide a quality foundation. There is a measured excitement to this new beginning.
“It’s not the ultimate judgment that happens now in the January camp, but it’s great to get to know these guys, and also off the field have good conversations,” said Klinsmann. “We’ll go from there, see how the talent develops and how they drive themselves.”
The burden of preparing these new faces does not fall solely on Klinsmann’s shoulders, however. With eight players in camp from last summer’s World Cup team in Brazil, he’s able to draw upon the wisdom and experience from his established veterans. Players such as Nick Rimando have been eager to step into roles as mentors.
“At times you’re there to mentor them, educate them and answer with any advice,” Rimando said of his leadership role. “You lead them in the right direction to show them what it’s like to play at this level. I've had mentors in the past and I’m there for them if they have any questions. It’s in my genes.”
The role of mentor is a delicate balance, and at the core of a healthy camp environment is intense competition.
“We already showed that we played a good World Cup, but now it’s over,” said Jermaine Jones, who enjoyed a strong run in Brazil and then helped the New England Revolution on a run to an MLS Cup runner-up performance. “A lot of young boys will come now and push the experienced players,so we have to show up too. It’s nice to battle with the young boys.”
Rimando concurs with Jones' assessment of competitive culture created by the mix of less and more experienced players.
“There’s always somebody knocking at your door to take your position or to be on this team," the veteran goalkeeper said. "For me, it’s always about competition. Anybody that is in camp now is going to push the next guy in line, and that’s what’s going to make us better.”
Klinsmann feels this collective effort to integrate new players within the context of spirited competition is a great strength of this group and indicative of the culture at large.
“It’s always been a big plus for the American team that they make it easy for new players to come in, to feel welcome, and to feel a part of the group right after a couple of days,” Klinsmann said. “The younger players feel accepted, they feel respected, and they spend a lot of time together.”
The proof will be in the pudding, but beginning with a quality mix of experience, competition and team spirit bodes well for a winning recipe.