Less than a month after leaving Brazil and the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the United States already has begun to prepare for a return trip to South America.
The U.S. Under-23 men’s national soccer team was in the Bahamas last week for three days of training and a friendly against the host country’s counterpart, all part of a long-term strategy to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. The Olympic men’s soccer tournament is limited to U-23 players, though three over-age players can join the squad after qualifying.
“We want to get together as many of those that fit into the age group, a good pool of players, who are eligible, so we don’t get caught at the last minute trying to put a team together,” said U.S. U-20 national team coach Tab Ramos, who conducted the camp along with fellow U.S. senior team assistant coach Andreas Herzog.
Ramos represented Team USA in the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games and was an assistant coach this past summer for the U.S. men’s soccer team in the World Cup in Brazil.
The camp concluded with the United States recording a 5-1 victory over the Bahamian U-23s Wednesday, the result of goals from five different U.S. players.
The early preparation marks a changing of methods — or maybe a return to the one that produced the best results for the United States — under Jurgen Klinsmann, who became coach of the U.S. men’s national team three years ago and added the duties and title of U.S. Soccer’s technical director when he signed a four-year contract extension in December.
“This is a whole Jurgen thing,” said Brian Dunseth, captain of the U.S. team when it finished fourth at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games — the only time Team USA advanced past the first round. “It’s an evolution, or maybe just going back to what was really successful.”
Dunseth, 37, now a television analyst on NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports and Real Salt Lake broadcasts, and his 2000 contemporaries had a similarly long preparation period before the Games Down Under. Shortly after the U-20 World Cup in Malaysia, the Americans, under coach Clive Charles, made five foreign trips — to France, Spain, Germany, England and Portugal — playing first-division teams and their reserve sides.
“We’d get together once a month to play, even it was just the San Diego Flash,” Dunseth said, referring to the then semi-pro team that now plays in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). “By the time we got to the Olympics, it didn’t matter who we had on the field, we were so familiar with each other. We could play against any formation. We never had to deviate.”
The camp last week was the second for the age-eligible group, counting the U-21 gathering in April at U.S. Soccer’s National Training Center in Carson, California, home of the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA.
Nine of the 19 players who traveled to the Bahamas also were in Carson four months ago.
Ramos said the plan is to have four or five camps next year, partially to scout and identify the players that could be available, but also to build familiarity among the various players, since getting a first-choice team together amid the numerous club and league schedules is virtually impossible.
“This is pretty much the norm with youth national teams,” said Ramos, 47, who played in three World Cups with the United States in the 1990s. “I’ve never traveled in my three years with (the U-20s) with the team I wanted.”
The list of players who will be age eligible for the 2016 Games but have not been part of either camp includes 2014 U.S. World Cup team members DeAndre Yedlin, 21, of the Seattle Sounders, Julian Green, 19, of Bayern Munich and John Brooks, 21, of Hertha Berlin.
The United States has failed to qualify in men’s soccer for two of the past three Olympic Games, despite the growth of Major League Soccer. Dunseth said he had played maybe 50-60 games as a professional with the New England Revolution by the time the Sydney Games started.
Twenty-year-old midfielder Luis Gil already has played 110 games since turning pro with Real Salt Lake four years ago, and he made his senior national team debut in February against South Korea.
The group that goes to Rio in two years is expected to be similarly experienced. Gil, a member of U.S. teams that went to both the 2009 U-17 World Cup and 2013 U-20 World Cup, was part of both the Carson and Bahamas camps. He had one of the goals against the Bahamians and is grateful for the opportunity to get to know the guys with whom he could be going to Brazil.
“It was a short trip, two training sessions, get a game in,” Gil said, who flew home to get into the second half of Salt Lake’s 3-0 win over D.C. United Saturday. “You get a sense of how everybody plays, how their movements are. A lot of guys come into camp. You try to make the most of it, because it’s easy not to get called in again.
“You got to show what you can do on the field.”
Brian Trusdell is a writer from New Jersey. He has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.