Chances are you missed it, but a crucial 2019 has already begun for both the United States women’s and men’s national teams. On Monday, both teams began their respective January camps, the traditional start of the annual senior team schedule.
As per its custom, the men’s camp is in Southern California, albeit not in the greater Los Angeles area but in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, ahead of friendlies with Panama and Costa Rica. The women, for the first time, are in camp in Europe, preparing for high-profile games with France and Spain in Portugal.
But beyond their location, they are very different camps, even if both teams enter a pivotal year.
Plainly, the stakes are highest for the women, who defend their women’s World Cup title in France over the summer. And head coach Jill Ellis and her team, which is largely remade from the last cycle, could hardly have had a better tune-up year in 2018. They won the SheBelieves Cup, the Tournament of Nations and the CONCACAF Championship. They went undefeated for the entire year, winning 18 games and tying two. And they conceded just 10 goals, for 65 goals scored.
But the trouble with the way the women’s game is structured is that after the World Cup and the Olympics in back-to-back summers, there is no major competition for almost three years. That means the bad taste from the quarterfinal elimination to Sweden – albeit on penalties – at the Rio Games has lingered for all this time. It was the worst American performance ever at a major competition. And as such, for all the silverware in second-rate competitions, much of this rebuilt national team – even co-captain and two-time FIFA Player of the Year Carli Lloyd has been relegated to a role as an impact sub in the big games – remains untested in the matches that matter most.
Ellis, ever unafraid to try new things, has brought a handful of players who are fairly new to the program to Portugal to get ready for the year – including a pair of college players, at that. But it’s come time for her new stars, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh to deliver on the highest stage now that they’ve pushed stalwarts out of the lineup. This team still has impactful veterans like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Tobin Heath, mind you, padding a deep team.
It’s a fourth World Cup title or bust for the U.S. women.
The men, by contrast, seek to get back to the World Cup, after missing their first edition since 1986 last year. And while any year when you’re not at the World Cup is a bad one, 2018 was tricky for other reasons. Almost the entire year was spent hiring a general manager and then a new head coach. And in the end, U.S. Soccer signed two men out of Major League Soccer, causing many to wonder what in the world took so long just to arrive at some obvious – perfectly defensible, yet right-under-their-noses – choices in Earnie Stewart and Gregg Berhalter. It also didn’t look good that a raft of seemingly qualified candidates was never formally interviewed.
And while 2018 will also be remembered as the year the federation, along with Canada and Mexico, managed to finally land another World Cup, in 2026, it was in some ways a wasted chance in the reboot of the national team. While a huge amount of talent is coming through and gaining experience, an entire year that could have been spent developing a new system and forging a core for the next decade, was frittered away.
This January camp isn’t an opportunity to set that right. As ever, this is a camp intended for Major League Soccer players in their offseason to kick-start their year. And almost none of the presumed national team starters plays stateside. Sure enough, of the 28 players Berhalter called in, only six have double-digit national team appearances. Fully 13 of them have yet to make their national team debut. And only Michael Bradley, the former captain, has ever consistently been a regular. But it’s camps like these where underappreciated or up-and-coming Americans might make an impression and put themselves on the radar.
After this summer’s Gold Cup, where the U.S. will get a chance to test its rejuvenated team, anchored by Christian Pulisic and other freshly blooded prodigies like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Josh Sargent – all of them young stars in the German Bundesliga – against the best regional competition, World Cup qualifying won’t be a long way off.
Which means that this is the year Berhalter, finally installed in the job he was rumored to be getting for many months, has to lay a sturdy foundation for the upcoming cycle. Almost four full years until the 2022 World Cup Qatar – to be played, unusually, in the cooler months of November and December, because the World Cup should never have been awarded to Qatar – the clock already ticks loudly on the men’s national team.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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