Ahhh, good ol’ Camp Cupcake, the annual tradition where the USMNT plays one or two January friendly matches after a two-week training camp. The camp provides a perfect opportunity for the U.S. coaching staff to get a look at a combination of established international players, MLS veterans and young upstarts looking to make their name with the national team. The roster is always an eclectic mix of personalities, even more so this year with a Gold Cup, Copa America and Olympics all within the next two years and the usual blooding of young talent that comes at the beginning of a new World Cup cycle.
Hopefully this American soccer cocktail will liven up what has been a disappointing trend just a bit. In the last two years the camp has led to two godawful matches. A 0-0 draw against Canada that had the excitement level of sitting in traffic for 90 minutes and a 2-0 win over South Korea featured a Chris Wondolowski brace and not much else.
Well, we can always hope that this year’s friendly tilts against Chile and Panama produce more exciting matches. As always the roster is incredibly interesting, so let’s jump right in:
Tier I: “OK, We’re Gonna Need to See Some Identification”
This is the group of guys that most USMNT fans have never heard of:
GK Alex Bono (Toronto FC)
It’s never a good sign when you don’t have a Wikipedia page and neither Dan Popko nor I have ever heard of you. Bono starred in goal for Syracuse and decided to forgo his senior season with the Orange to enter the MLS draft., ending up a first round pick of Toronto FC. He also most likely will not see time in net in either of the friendlies.
GK Jon Kempin (Sporting Kansas City)
The Sporting Kansas City backup keeper has a bright future, but will have to battle Chilean World Cup veteran Luis Marín for minutes in 2015. He’s strictly the third stringer in this camp, although he will surely receive more call-ups this cycle as a call up here is a signal of how Klinsmann rates the various MLS keepers.
DF Steve Birnbaum (DC United)
Birnbaum had a nice rookie season in DC, logging over 1500 minutes as a center back. While he has a long way to go to crack the upper echelon of American defenders, this camp will be a great learning experience. I would like to see him get a look in one of the games, preferably against Panama.
DF Christian Dean (Vancouver Whitecaps)
The No. 3 pick in last year’s MLS draft, Dean only saw a 125 minutes in 2014. He has the size to play center back internationally, and this camp will give Klinsmann the chance to evaluate his potential down the road. Do not expect an immediate impact from Dean on the national stage.
DF Oscar Sorto (LA Galaxy)
Sorto has appeared in only one game for the Galaxy. He also plays the same position as his former U-20 teammate, DeAndre Yedlin, which does not bode well for his future as the U.S. right back. Still, as the only natural right back on this roster, he may get a chance to earn some minutes with the senior squad.
MF Dennis Flores (León)
I had never heard of Flores until today. He’s appeared twice for León in Liga MX and scored in his only appearence for the American U-23 squad. I’m looking forward to learning more about him in the coming months.
MF Marc Pelosi (Liverpool U-21)
Pelosi has made four appearances for Liverpool in the U-21 Premier League, which unfortunately is not broadcast of NBCSN. A legit prospect for the USMNT, a loan move to a second or third tier English club would not be a bad option for him. Can also play left back, which is always good for an American, but may also be a sign of his imminent demise.
MF Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids)
Saw significant time for a Rapids team that started out promising, but was damn near unwatchable toward the end of the MLS season. One of the last cuts before the U-20 World Cup in 2013, Serna had his moments for Colorado, and could be poised to make a step up in 2015. Would doubt he could break into the USMNT lineup considering the talent around him.
FW Julio Morales (Chivas Guadalajara)
Yet to make his debut for the good Chivas (Guadalajara), Morales spent a lot of time in 2013 with the awful, now defunct Chivas USA. I refused to watch that team play and saw none of Morales that season. He saw some time with second division Mexican club Tepic in 2014, and will most likely be loaned out again this year. Not a serious contender for playing time.
Tier II: The MLS Young-Guns
Despite being 23 or younger, these players have made a significant impact for the their club teams, and will be looking to the same in red, white and blue.
DF/MF Perry Kitchen (DC United)
Kitchen is listed on the roster as a defender, although he’s been playing as a defensive midfielder for DC United. Only 22 and with well over a hundred MLS appearances, Kitchen could have staying power for the USMNT. He has a chance to throw himself into the conversation at defensive midfielder, where no one has seized control of a starting spot at this point despite a seeming glut of talented options.
DF Shane O’Neill (Colorado Rapids)
Colorado’s season went down the toilet when O’Neill got hurt. He came back, but the team had a fork in them at that point. A young central defender with enormous promise, O’Neill is already a leader at 21. Has the option to play for both the USA and Ireland, and it would be a wise decision for Klinsmann to not let him get away. A keeper.
MF Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake)
Gil had a disappointing 2014 after several strong seasons for Salt Lake. Another 21-year-old prospect — and the type of creative player many in the US have been clamoring for — Gil is full of promise and will be a perennial MLS All-Star if he doesn’t wind up in Europe. Gil can play as both a box-to-box and attacking midfielder. He’s a Camp Cupcake veteran and should see the field at some point this month.
MF Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
If you listened to our most recent podcast, you heard about our love of Trapp’s game. He’s got a little Bradley and a little Beckerman in him, and he’s a definite keeper. He caught Thierry Henry’s eye after an impressive performance against the Red Bulls, which is great for the (yet another) 21-year-old. Popko thinks he’s bound for Russia; this might be the first good chance he has of convincing the rest of the USA soccer fans that he belongs.
FW Tesho Akindele (FC Dallas)
OH CANADA! The Canadian born Akindele has chosen to play for the USA, which is great news for Americans and a blow to our neighbors up North. A surprise as the No. 6 pick in the 2014 MLS draft, Akindele found the net seven times and was named last season’s Rookie of the Year. He’s not yet ready to be an international star, but his development so far has been outstanding.
FW Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Zardes came out of nowhere to play big minutes as a rookie for the Galaxy in 2013, scoring just four goals but showing a tremendous amount of potential. That potential was joined by maturity and a refined shooting touch, leading to a breakout sophomore campaign in 2014. A sixteen goal season and championship later, Zardes is poised to make a major impact for the USMNT in the future. Despite having yet to make his international debut, Zardes is the single most dangerous striker on the roster.
Tier III: The Fringe Candidates
These are the guys on the outside looking in who are one step from Klinsmann’s first team of 23 — or one step from complete irrelevancy.
GK Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
Has been in a tug of war for playing time and status with Bill Hamid for the last couple of years. With Tim Howard and Nick Rimando both longshots for Russia, their battle now has an air of importance that was missing last cycle. Johnson is a good shot-stopper, but he does not exactly inspire confidence between the posts.
MF Brek Shea (Orlando City)
Just a month shy of his 25th birthday, Shea comes back to States looking to revive a career that’s on life support. The winger headed to England as the next big thing and flamed out spectacularly. He can still impact a game, but must play in control and make better decisions to get something out of his tremendous raw talent. An option off the bench.
MF Miguel Ibarra (Minnesota United)
A month younger than Shea, Ibarra is almost a complete unknown. He saw a small chunk of playing time against Honduras, and it was hard to get a read on his game. He was the best player in the NASL last season, which has yet to translate to an MLS transfer. Klinsmann must like his game if he keeps calling him in. Still, it is difficult to see a midfielder playing in the NASL have a long-lasting impact on the USMNT.
FW Bobby Wood (1860 Munich)
Wood is back on the national team after four recent caps off the bench for the USA. In each game, Wood had an ideal scoring chance and screwed them all up. I have officially lost faith in him, and so has his club 1860 Munich. Wood is the only non-North American based player in the camp. He must have a good couple weeks to improve his situation with Klinsmann, while his agent better be working his ass off to find him a new club. Should see time off the bench, may start, will make me throw things.
Tier IV: The Grizzled Vets
Tier IV is reserved for those who have made a significant impact in MLS, the national team or both. They still have a future with the team, but time is beginning to catch up with them.
DF Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders)
There were a few months where Evans looked like he may be starting at right back in Brazil. The converted midfielder never really got the hang of the position and was, at best, a stopgap option. He was one of the last cuts before the World Cup, and had settled back into the midfield in Seattle. Evans is 29 as the camp kicks off in 2015, and needs to play well in what may be one of his last opportunities.
MF Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution)
If I had a vote, the 28-year-old Nguyen would be my 2014 MLS MVP. In the prime of his career, Nguyen had a fantastic season, scoring 18 goals, which doubled the total of his first two seasons in Foxboro. Nguyen has a chance to be a major part of this World Cup cycle, especially with the USMNT exploring options in the attacking third of the field. Should earn at least one start.
FW Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
After the missed chance to end all missed chances, Wondolowski came back to San Jose and kept scoring. So, with a lack of true strikers at his disposal, Klinsmann brought him back in. It may be frustrating, but Wondo was the right choice for Brazil. Klinsmann picked him because he knew Wondo would put himself in a position to bag a goal if given the chance. Unfortunately, he couldn’t convert when it mattered most. Will probably sit against Chile and then net a hat trick against Panama. At 31, he’s still productive, and his career appears far from over, for better or worse.
Tier V: The A-Listers
Here are the guys that every USMNT fan should know.
GK Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Rimando’s career for the USA was supposed to be over after Brazil. Then he played the second half against the Czech Republic and damn near caused a goalkeeper controversy. The undisputed number one for this camp, Rimando is playing the best soccer of his life at 35 and now finds himself on the A-List.
DF Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution)
So Jermaine Jones, center back, appears to be a thing now. And you know what? I don’t hate it! Jones was always at his best playing a strict defensive role — wonder strike against Portugal aside — and has the ability to be a semi-long-term contributor in the back four. This move will save his legs, and with the track record of players losing their athleticism after thirty, it may be the best chance for him to prolong his career with the Yanks.
DF Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)
Besler suffered a SEVERE dip in form following his strong display at the World Cup, nevertheless he is still the most consistent of the center backs in the national team player pool. He’s in the long term plans for Klinsmann and company, but is far from a lock for Russia. Soon to be 28, should be entering the prime of his career.
MF Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
After much was written about Bradley’s sub-par Brazil performances, the midfielder headed back to Toronto and a club that was self-destructing. After the season mercifully ended, Bradley underwent foot surgery and stayed out of the spotlight. Still the best all-around player on the roster, Bradley will be looking to use Camp Cupcake to start his career resurgence. I have no idea where Klinsmann will play him, but it is probably the No. 1 question heading into these two games.
MF Mix Diskerud (NYCFC)
Diskerud’s transfer saga was finally complete when he signed a deal to become one of the faces of expansion club NYCFC. He enters the camp looking to build on the second half of 2014 where he was one of the few players who played well for the U.S. Diskerud and Bradley will be seeing a lot of time together in the midfield this cycle, so forming a partnership is crucial. It must start now.
FW Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
Dempsey enters camp as the undisputed leader of this team. Like Jones he is also fighting father time, although he remains committed to playing for the USMNT as long as he’s effective. Dempsey will be counted on to provide a ton of offense for this team, which does not feature a ton of experience on the wing. Should start twice.