A few months ago, we didn't even know if this camp would happen.
With the U.S. national team set to open the Hexagonal at Honduras on Feb. 6, coach Jurgen Klinsmann had publicly dithered on the status of January camp, with some reports suggesting the camp would be scrapped entirely.
Thankfully, Klinsmann and the U.S. federation came to their senses and Camp Cupcake (or Camp Strudel as it's now become under Klinsi) will proceed as usual. It's a good thing too, as the January camp in a year prior to the World Cup is arguably the most important of them all.
“I think the January camp gives players like myself a chance who are on the bubble, who maybe are capable of helping the team,” former national team defender Jimmy Conrad told Goal.com. “Maybe not every single game, but when you need them in a pinch.”
That's why the 2013 version of January camp is so important, much like the 2005 version was for Conrad, who was an unproven commodity when he was called in by Bruce Arena for the winter gathering.
“I'm thankful for the January camp because I don't know if I could have won Bruce and (former U.S. assistant coach) Mooch and those guys over without being around them for an extended period of time,” Conrad said.
"There's no way that I would have gained Bruce's trust to put me into a game without having the full three weeks to kind of show what I'm about," he added.
After impressing in January camp, Conrad was brought along to Trinidad and Tobago as the U.S. began Hexagonal play. Though he didn't play in T&T, Conrad was eventually blooded into the full squad and became one of the team's standout performers in an otherwise forgettable World Cup 2006.
“As a player you can always see who's above you on the totem pole and if those guys go into the January camp with you, that's a great opportunity to bypass them,” Conrad said.
Klinsmann's 2013 January camp is no different than previous iterations, as several players have been presented with a golden opportunity to move into the full-team picture just ahead of a make-or-break 2013 for the national team.
Here are five such players that could vault themselves into serious consideration for playing time in the Hexagonal with solid performances in January camp and the friendly against Canada on Jan. 29:
Omar Gonzalez, defender, LA Galaxy
One could argue that outside of Graham Zusi, there's nobody in January camp closer to a starting role with the A-squad than the hulking Galaxy center back. A combination of precious-little depth at center back and an exceptionally strong return from a torn ACL means the 24-year-old is on the precipice of a big role with the Stars and Stripes.
“He needs to show to us that he is ready, that he is ready for a big step into international football,” Klinsmann said when announcing the roster in a televised show on Fox Soccer. If he takes that step successfully, the 2012 MLS Cup MVP has the ability to be a fixture in the lineup for years to come.
Matt Besler, defender, Sporting Kansas City
In much the same vein as Gonzalez, Besler's big opportunity is due in equal parts to performance and position. The 25-year-old center back has been trending sharply upward in recent seasons, and has finally started to be recognized as one of Major League Soccer's best, as evidenced by his 2012 Defender of the Year award. His smooth passing style and positional awareness will endear him to Klinsmann, but it remains to be seen if he has the necessary athleticism for the international game. With zero caps to his name, Besler can follow in the footsteps of club teammate Graham Zusi and vault himself into consideration with a strong January.
Mix Diskerud, midfielder, Rosenborg
Diskerud has flashed in and out of the national team picture since making his debut with a memorable assist to Juan Agudelo against South Africa in November 2010. After some strong performances with Rosenborg and a late goal against Russia in the USA's last match in November, the 22-year-old is knocking on the door for regular minutes with the senior side. The Norwegian-born attacker has a combination of creativity and eye for goal which make him a rare commodity in the American player pool. If Mix impresses Klinsmann and sorts out his murky club situation in the near future, he'd make a solid option off the bench in Hexagonal play, especially when his team needs a goal.
Juan Agudelo, forward, Chivas USA
Agudelo's immense talent has been bubbling below the surface for years now, but it's only made game appearances on a sporadic basis. Still only 20, Agudelo has accrued valuable experience in his career, with three professional seasons, 16 caps, and offseason training stints with Liverpool, Celtic, Stuttgart and now West Ham under his belt. American fans have been waiting for a breakthrough from the young striker for some time, and the opportunity is there for both club and country. Could 2013 be his year?
Will Bruin, forward, Houston Dynamo
If Will Bruin reaches his full potential, the U.S. could have some kind of a wonderful hybrid of Jozy Altidore and Chris Wondolowski: A big, physical forward who knows his way around the box, and pops up in the right place at the right time to score goals. For now, he's an uncapped 23-year-old striker with plenty of potential and a delightful dancing bear goal celebration. Bruin upped his rookie tally of five goals to 12 in his sophomore campaign, and has the tools to be one of the best strikers in MLS, and a solid option for his national team in the Hexagonal.
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