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USMNT January camp: What’s at stake for newcomers? | MLSSoccer.com

USMNT January camp: What’s at stake for newcomers? | MLSSoccer.com

No matter how long and steep a player’s road to regular minutes with the US men’s national team may appear to be, every call-up is a precious opportunity, including January camp, the 2024 edition of which kicks off in Orlando on Monday.

And there’s an additional prize on the line this year.

“This January camp does have a different look,” head coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters as he unveiled his roster on Friday. “The reason why is because the Olympics are coming up, and we’re able to use this opportunity to purposely bring in Olympic-age-eligible players. And you see they make up a large portion of the roster.”

Thirteen of the 25 players called in are eligible for the men’s soccer tournament at the Summer Games in France, which FIFA limits to players under the age of 23, except for three overage players allowed per squad.

“The Olympic team head coach [Marko Mitrović] is going to be joining our staff in this camp. So this is purposely designed to give the younger players an opportunity to really put their name forward for the Olympic team,” explained Berhalter.

“In the meantime, there’s a number of other players that have the opportunity to do something differently. And when you think of our senior team, there’s a lot of players that are Olympic-age-eligible. So it’s not about how old you are, it’s about how good you are. And so I think any player in this camp has an opportunity to show that they should be part of the senior team on a regular basis.”

Maximizing opportunity

As the USMNT player pool broadens and deepens, places in its established core alongside the likes of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie become scarcer and more difficult to seize. Yet soft spots persist on the depth chart, and high performance pays.

Take Brandon Vazquez, who made his USMNT senior debut at this point last year and quickly waded into the mix at the striker position by scoring four goals in his first eight caps. Could those footsteps be followed by someone like AZ Jackson, the rising St. Louis CITY standout who had only played in MLS NEXT Pro a year ago?

“Everyone has a different pathway, and it’s really nice to see him and what he’s done and how he’s come on and made an impact for a very, very strong St. Louis team,” said Berhalter of Jackson. “So I think it’s interesting to work with guys like him, like Diego [Luna], who bring this unpredictability to the game. He’s a dribbler, a playmaker. We’re excited to see how he fits into what we’re doing.”

Or maybe this January camp’s star will be Bernard Kamungo, the diamond in the rough who first earned a contract by impressing in an open tryout with North Texas SC, FC Dallas’ second team, in 2021 and by the end of last season was arguably FCD’s most important attacker during the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

It was striking to hear Berhalter make an unprompted comparison between Pulisic and Kamungo, who was born in a Tanzanian refugee camp and didn’t play soccer on grass, or even with a proper ball, until a resettlement program landed his family in Abilene, Texas, when he was 14.

“That’s the beauty of this job,” said Berhalter, “to see these journeys that players take and then end up potentially representing the senior national team in a game, it’s just a wonderful story. And it’s no secret that I get a lot of information from Nico Estevez, the coach of Dallas [and Berhalter’s former USMNT assistant]. We’re very close and he called me at the beginning of the year, and he said, ‘You know, I may have this guy that’s interesting. We’re going to have to wait to see how this whole year plays out.’

“Sure enough, the kid just has a knack for scoring goals. He gets in front of goal and he’s very effective. Those are qualities you can’t teach. When I think about our wingers, particularly Christian, you know, that’s one of his main attributes that people overlook, is that he scores goals. He’s in position, he attacks the penalty box very well and then he’s able to finish off attacks in a very efficient way. And Bernard’s no different. So it’s going to be interesting to really work with him up close. He’s been coming off of an ankle injury towards the end of the year, so we’re going to have to see what his fitness is like. But really excited for him and again, just an amazing feel-good type of story that he’s involved in this camp.”

Other breakthrough candidates

Or might Jack McGlynn, the Philadelphia Union academy product who pushed into his club’s veteran-heavy starting rotation as a teenager on the transcendent distribution of his brilliant left foot, make another leap forward in his young career?

“That’s the beauty of this camp, working with young players who haven’t been involved before, with Jack, and seeing what he can do and see how his skills translate to the senior level,” said Berhalter. “There’s no question he’s talented, there’s no question he has an eye for making passes that other players don’t usually see. So now it’s, how does he put that together in the context of the full match and what’s needed on both sides of the ball? So we’re going to be able to see that.”

Perhaps this is the time for one or both of the Seattle Sounders duo of Jackson Ragen and Josh Atencio to make a breakthrough.

“Jackson’s been, I think, one of the top passers as a center back in Major League Soccer. He’s an imposing center back, great height, really strong. I’m really interested to work with him,” said Berhalter. “We know there’s things that he needs to continue to work on. I spoke to coach [Brian] Schmetzer at length about both him and Josh, and we’re excited to see them both in camp.

“Josh has come on late and become a lockdown starter for Seattle, a very good Seattle team. So for us, seeing is he more of a [No.] 6 or No. 8 and seeing how he can fit into what we do. But both of these players are young, young enough, and have earned this opportunity.”

Cowell’s development

More is expected from more familiar faces, however. The coach’s tone was quite different for January campers who’ve spent more time in the USMNT environment like James Sands and Cade Cowell.

“I wouldn’t get ahead of ourselves here with Cade,” cautioned Berhalter of the San Jose Earthquakes’ homegrown winger, recently linked to Chivas Guadalajara, among other potential transfer suitors. “He has a ton of potential, he’s a great teammate, he has experience with the senior national team, but now it’s also about him applying this in every day for his club, becoming a starter, becoming a high performer on his team. Scoring goals in Major League Soccer is going to be important. And then when he gets the opportunity with our team, making an impact.

“For him, it’s straddling between, can he make an impact for this Olympic age group, can he perform at the levels that’s needed to be an impact player there? And then see what’s next.”

Robinson’s future

This was evident most of all with Miles Robinson.

The tall central defender has been one of the few MLS-based players included in recent full-strength rosters, yet raised a few eyebrows when he signed with FC Cincinnati this week instead of moving abroad after playing out his contract at Atlanta United.

“When players talk to me about their next step, when they call me and ask me – some of them do – the first thing is always just trying to understand their motivation and what they want,” said Berhalter of the two-time MLS Best XI honoree. “With Miles, it was no different. We talked through some of the potential options, we talked through his future and how we see him with the national team program. And ultimately, he decided to sign for the Supporters’ Shield winners, a very strong team within MLS. That’s a personal choice that he makes, and all we can do now is continue to monitor him, monitor him the same we do as every other player. That’s our commitment to the whole group.”

Robinson’s FCC contract length is on the shorter side for a player of his stature, which may offer him added flexibility should European interest grow. And it sounds like he’ll be playing for his USMNT future this year as well.

“The expectations will be that he’s a dominant center back in this league, that he performs at a really high level in this league. And I think he’s well aware of that,” added Berhalter. “Now it’s just about seeing what he can do and how he can help Cincinnati.”

Robinson and the rest of this USMNT group will train in central Florida for a little over a week before upping the stakes for south Texas, where they’ll host a similarly young, unproven Slovenia side at Toyota Field, the home of USL Championship club San Antonio FC, in a friendly on Jan. 20.

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