Four things to expect from Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. in 2015
A banner 2014 is over for the U.S. national team, and there isn't much time to look back. International soccer moves too quickly for that. Already, all eyes are on 2015.
The start of the annual January camp is only about six weeks away. An important Gold Cup looms in July. Before and after that tournament, new faces will force their way into coach Jurgen Klinsmann's plans, while longtime servants begin to get phased out. That's the cycle of life at the sport's highest level, the natural order of things, the way it has to be.
"2015 will be a year of developing talent on and off the field," Klinsmann told ussoccer.com this week. "We want to challenge our players and not let them settle, not even for a second, for whatever they have achieved up to that point."
For the American squad, there is plenty to build on heading into the next calendar year. Here are four things to look out for.
1. More games against elite foes
Since taking over in 2011, Klinsmann has made playing top-tier opponents central to attempts to raise the program's bar. We can expect more of those matches in 2015, something Klinsmann mentioned more than once following last week's year-ending loss in Ireland. Specifically, he hinted at testing his team in tough environments and against South American foes.
That could happen as early as January, as the U.S. tries to secure a road friendly in the Southern Hemisphere early next year. There are rumors of friendlies against world champion Germany and cross-border rival Mexico. There will also be a couple of matches at home between February and June, when the Gold Cup squad convenes ahead of a competition that, if the U.S. wins it, would secure passage to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.
2. A stacked January camp
Klinsmann had considered limiting the annual year-opening training camp to candidates for the 2016 Olympics or even scrapping it altogether. In the end, he determined that unless or until MLS extends its season into the winter months -- a seemingly insurmountable obstacle given the harsh winter weather in northern cities -- the tradition will continue.
"We are forced to hold a January camp to try and get the players in early in order to build their foundation for the season," Klinsmann said. "It probably will go with the theme we had the last couple months, bringing in experienced players, bringing in a lot of younger players and kind of meld them together."
The 2015 version could feature the strongest January camp roster ever, with MLS-based vets like DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones all expected to be available for the first time since returning to the domestic league from foreign teams.
3. Plenty of new players
In just 12 minutes of action against world No. 3 Colombia earlier this month, New England Revolution midfielder and MLS MVP candidate Lee Nguyen showed enough to suggest that he can make an impact at the international level.
Nguyen will get a much longer audition in January and maybe even a start in one (or both) of the two games expected to accompany camp. Other standout MLSers -- guys like Rookie of the Year recipient Tesho Akindele, his FC Dallas teammate Matt Hedges, D.C. United center back Steve Birnbaum, midfielder Will Trapp of the Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes -- are in line for opportunities, too.
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European-based youngsters should also continue to get looks. Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem could be one of them if he acquires U.S. citizenship early next year, as could Americans playing in Mexico and beyond, such as NASL Golden Boot winner Christian Ramirez.
"We are looking for players all over the place -- if they come through the European channels, maybe through the youth system there, through Mexico or the NASL or the college route or the MLS ranks," Klinsmann said. "Our job is to identify their talent and then build it."
4. Klinsmann's relationship with World Cup vets
One of the dangers of keeping a national team coach around for a second World Cup cycle is that players -- even subconsciously -- can begin to tune out the message.
"I think it's a huge challenge to keep the ideas fresh," ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told us earlier this month.
That's especially true for demanding bosses like Klinsmann. The German was famously met with resistance during the last cycle, when veterans grumbled about the grueling two-a-day training sessions and chafed at his unorthodox approach.
Eventually, the team bought in to the coach's philosophy, and they remained a mostly united front through Brazil 2014. But then it's easier for a coach to motivate when a World Cup is on the horizon. With Russia 2018 still well over three years away, Klinsmann faces a much greater challenge this time around. Already, the drop in form from many of his most experienced players post-tournament is alarming. Klinsmann's ability to get his vets going again will be crucial if the U.S. is to have a successful 2015.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.