While the curtain fell on the domestic soccer calendar with Seattle Sounders FC lifting the 2016 M.L.S. Cup on Saturday, it won’t be down for long. In less than a month, the U.S. Men’s National Team will convene for its annual January camp in Carson, Calif., where the MNT’s North American-based player pool will come together for nearly a month of training with new head coach Bruce Arena.
An annual ritual for many of the team’s experienced domestic-based players, this year’s edition should have some extra spice. With 10 years between stints leading the National Team, it will be Arena’s first time working with a vast majority of the players and will allow veterans and newcomers alike the chance to get acquainted with the USA’s all-time winningest coach.
Recognizing the opportunity to capitalize on the long M.L.S. offseason, it was Arena who made the camp a fixture in the MNT’s yearly schedule during his first tenure in charge.
With extended training preceding a friendly or two at the end of the month, the camp provides a lengthy look at domestic talent, as well as an opportunity for the team to begin preparations for the CONCACAF Gold Cup (which used to be held in January and February) or an upcoming set of World Cup Qualifying matches. With Matchdays 3 & 4 of Final Round Qualifying against Honduras and Panama looming at the end of March, the latter will be the case for Arena and his roster when camp kicks off at the National Training Center on Jan. 10. Two-and-a-half weeks of training will ensue before the MNT travels the I-5 South to San Diego to take on Serbia on Jan. 29 in Arena’s first match back in charge. Following the Serbia match, the team heads east to Chattanooga, Tenn., where the MNT will close out camp with a Feb. 3 friendly against regional rivals Jamaica.
Many faces called to Carson will be familiar, but as has been the case every year, a few uncapped players who have impressed during the M.L.S. campaign will also make their way to Southern California. In various interviews during his first few weeks back on the job, Arena also left open the possibility of bringing back some U.S. internationals who haven’t been in the MNT frame recently.
As players utilize the camp to get back into the swing of things on the fitness side, the near month-long rendezvous will also provide their first glimpse in understanding what Arena is all about, how he operates, and of course, a chance to make the case for inclusion on March’s World Cup Qualifying roster.
For new and returning faces alike, the list of players that jumpstarted their National Team careers in January camp is as long as it is encouraging: Pablo Mastroeni (2002), Tim Howard (2003), Jonathan Bornstein and Ricardo Clark (2007), Jozy Altidore and Maurice Edu (2008), Sacha Kljestan (2009), Geoff Cameron and Graham Zusi (2012), Matt Besler (2013), DeAndre Yedlin (2014) and Gyasi Zardes (2015) are just a few who have used the camp as a launch pad for their international career.
In 2016, both Altidore and defender Steve Birnbaum put in impressive performances that launched the duo on to successful years for club and country. Altidore’s goals against Iceland and Canada catapulted him to winning his second U.S. Soccer Player of the Year award last week, while Birnbaum impressed enough to earn starts in important U.S. World Cup Qualifying wins against Guatemala (March 29) and Trinidad & Tobago (Sept. 6).
A new year means new beginnings, and for both Arena and the players this January camp will be an important variation on that theme.