January Camp is always an interesting time for the U.S. Men’s National Team. It serves the purpose of getting a bunch of domestic players ready for the upcoming MLS season, and it serves as a chance for the side to start off a new year on a strong note.
The 2020 calendar year will be a much more intense period than 2019. A year ago the team hadn’t played a competitive match in quite some time and had a while to wait until their next one. The Americans had a the Concacaf Gold Cup and the Nations League on their plate, but that was nothing compared to what awaits the USMNT over the next 12 months and beyond.
The USMNT enters this year looking ahead to what some would perceive as pressure as World Cup Qualifying gets started in the fall. Head coach Gregg Berhalter says it’s much more important than that.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” Berhalter said Wednesday morning. “I would call it a responsibility. The players, the coaching staff, the whole organization feels a responsibility to the nation, to our fans, to get back in the World Cup.”
The core of that responsibility will come right here in 2020. The USMNT will play six of its 10 World Cup Qualifying matches at the tail end of the year thanks to a restructured Concacaf qualification tournament. The famous hex featuring the top six teams will now take place at the beginning of the process with the top three finishers moving on to Qatar and the fourth place team taking on the winner of a group stage and knockout round featuring the lower ranks of the confederation in a two-legged playoff.
The Americans also have the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and a potential final in June as they look to win their first trophy under their new boss.
Berhalter is making sure to challenge his team in spring friendlies ahead of those games, including a challenging trip across the Atlantic Ocean to face quality European opposition.
“We’re going to compete in friendly games in Europe against world class opponents,” Berhalter said. “We’re going to play Holland and another opponent that’s a team in the European Championships, so they’re in the final preparation phase. Then we move into June where we have Nations League semifinals and potentially finals, a chance for this team to win a trophy. Then we go into World Cup Qualifying.”
There are also a handful of players looking ahead to Olympic qualification in March and the pressure sitting behind that. The under-23 roster hasn’t made it into the Olympics since 2008 and they are looking to return to that important competition. That has created a dynamic where there’s a group of players with different goals and motivations.
“In this particular camp, because of the makeup of this group there’s a lot of different factors and individual situations,” Berhalter said. “We have some guys that are trying to get on the Olympic qualifying team, we have some guys that are trying to be starters on that team, some guys are trying to make our team, and some guys are trying to cement themselves as starters in their group. So there’s a lot of opportunity at stake here. We ask that the guys are focussed, train hard, and have good attitudes.”
“Everyone always has something at stake,” defender Walker Zimmerman said, “especially any time that you’re representing the U.S. and so I just think there’s a lot of pride, a lot of excitement, and a lot of guys looking to get 2020 started on the right foot.”
Getting started on the right foot is already proving to be a challenge. The year has already gotten off to an interesting start and it’s hardly a week old. The team finds themselves training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida instead of their planned trip to Qatar. It’s a bit of adversity thanks to the extremely short notice regarding the change in plans, but it’s not getting in the way of the team looking ahead to the opportunities the camp presents.
The USMNT starts 2020 against Costa Rica in its first friendly of the new decade on February 1.