The January training camp is a tradition for the U.S. Men’s National Team, but 2016’s camp is a unique one.
With the Under-23 team facing a tough Olympic qualifying series against Colombia in March, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann decided to split the roster in half, leaving off some big names from the senior team to make room for new faces.
“We kept it very, very light, the whole camp,” said Klinsmann at a press conference in Los Angeles, California. “The idea, having both groups in there, split them up … has worked out great because the older guys took care of the younger ones.”
Nearly every player SBI spoke to talked about a student-teacher relationship between the veterans and the new call-ups. The word “mentor” was bandied about often, but despite that, many of these players are fighting for the same few spots on Klinsmann’s first team roster.
“Obviously you want to learn from those guys, but you’re also challenging them, and they know that,” Ethan Finlay told SBI. At 25, Finlay’s a newcomer to the camp, and he’s well aware that he will have to earn his way onto the senior squad.
“Jurgen has told us that it’s going to be a challenge,” said Finlay. “He wanted the U-23s to be challenged by the older guys, and he wants those older guys to be challenged by the younger guys — and know that no one can be comfortable.”
Gyasi Zardes, who will be fighting to hold onto his roster spot after a successful first year with the national team, agrees.
“No, it’s not teacher-student. It’s all competition,” said Zardes. “All of the people in that locker room are professionals. So it can’t be like a teacher, it’s competitive.”
But others saw the camp differently. Jordan Morris has plenty of reasons to be feeling good right now, especially since the 21-year-old just signed with Seattle after leading Stanford to an NCAA College Cup championship. Everything’s looking up for Morris, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t feel any competitive vibes between himself and fellow striker Jozy Altidore.
“(Jozy’s) a 100 percent a mentor. He’s been great with me, both on and off the field,” said Morris. “Whenever I have a question I can go up to Jozy and ask him. He was super welcoming from the time I first came into camp.”
And Kellyn Acosta, a 20-year-old on a Homegrown contract with FC Dallas, had maybe the best experience of anyone.
“It’s pretty crazy, it’s a dream come true,” said Acosta, who says he found a mentor in Matt Besler. “The older guys have been giving some advice here and there, just giving me little tips to help me take my game to the next level.”
The camp ends with a pair of friendlies against Iceland and Canada. Klinsmann called the friendlies “something to get excited about” for the players, while also stressing the need for good results in international games.
Acosta, who may not even see the field, is definitely excited.
“Hopefully I get the opportunity from Jurgen to go out there, and if I get the opportunity I’m going to make the most of it,” said Acosta. “This is the world’s biggest stage, and I’m just glad to be a part of it and glad that they have eyes on me.”