Soccer

U.S. Soccer team gets a head start with winter camp at StubHub Center

Under Coach Juergen Klinsmann, 29-man U.S. team will be preparing for Gold Cup and auditioning for Olympics

Juergen Klinsmann measures time with a stopwatch, not a calendar.

Even though the U.S. won't begin Olympic qualifying for another 14 months and the next World Cup for 3 1/2 years, Klinsmann believes there's no time to waste on either front.

And that, as much as anything, explains the eclectic 29-man roster the national team coach summoned to StubHub Center for U.S. Soccer's winter training camp.

Eight of the call-ups played in last summer's World Cup — but 15 others have never made an appearance for the national team. Four players are older than 30 — but four others are just 20.

The players will be evaluated on different standards. The senior group, preparing for this summer's Gold Cup, will be judged on how it plays in friendlies in Chile later this month and against Panama at StubHub Center on Feb. 8. The under-23 contingent will be auditioning for the Olympic team.

You can call it Camp Head Start for both.

"The bigger picture is to give the core of the senior team a head start into the season," Klinsmann said. "But also give a head start to the core group of the Olympic team. To start working with them, to start to know them, to integrate them into our philosophy and our different approaches."

Next year's Rio Olympics have clearly become an emphasis for Klinsmann — and with reason. The U.S. men's team hasn't won an Olympic medal since 1904. And it didn't even play in two of the last three Games after getting bounced in the group qualifying stage four years ago in Nashville.

Klinsmann has vowed that won't happen again.

"It was just a mess of attitudes," he said of the 2011 fiasco. "I went there myself to Nashville to see the final game. And I was furious. It was not a lack of talent. It was a lack of understanding how important, actually, Olympic Games are.

"So now we want to learn [from] that mistake."

Those lessons began to be applied quickly. Five months after the qualifying tournament, Caleb Porter, the coach in charge, left for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer. And 15 months after that, Klinsmann agreed to a four-year extension with U.S. Soccer — but only after he was guaranteed the job of technical director as well, placing him in charge of not just the senior squad but all men's national programs, including the Olympic team.

The aim was to implement a uniform philosophy for all men's national team players, from the under-14 boys to the World Cup team.

"The players now have a better and better understanding of what we demand in the national team programs," Klinsmann said. "They're taking it as a profession more and more. It's a job. You have to live for your job on and off the field."

Which brings us back to the players in this month's training camp. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones — only one of whom has attended a January camp since 2008 — are here not just for the friendlies against Chile and Panama. They're also here to guide the players who will make up the Olympic qualifying team, which, by FIFA rules, is limited to players under 23.

"These younger players, in order for them to understand really well what it means being in an environment like that, need the leadership of the older ones," Klinsmann said. "This mentorship is important."

Klinsmann has a soft spot for the Olympics. He scored a team-high four goals to help Germany win a bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Games. Klinsmann and Germany won the World Cup two years later.

"It's a steppingstone," he said of the Olympics. "A very important steppingstone."

And it could be the same for an aging U.S. national team in need of rejuvenation. Six starters from last year's World Cup team — and eight players on the roster — were over 31 in Brazil. Eventual world champion Germany used just one player that old.

However, Klinsmann's U-23 team will have to age quickly, both in terms of maturity and experience, to help the senior team in the current World Cup cycle. Of the 11 Olympic-age players in camp, just one — midfielder Luis Gil — has played for the national team. That appearance lasted only 15 minutes.

Just two others — Colorado's Dillon Serna and Columbus' Wil Trapp — are regular starters for their club teams.

So for Klinsmann, there's no time to waste.

"That's why, purposely, now we're building the Olympic team in that January camp in the background. [To] try to get these players basically jump-started," Klinsmann said. "The players see 'OK, there's a plan.' There's a plan because we want to take away any kind of excuses they may have if things are not working out.

"So we have challenges. But it's important that, meanwhile, we benefit from the quality and leadership of the experienced guys. And at the same time, we make sure that the younger player pool gets enough attention and push and inspiration to grow into the next cycle."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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