CARSON, Calif. – The ultimate prize is a plane ticket and a freshly-pressed U.S. national team jersey for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Subsidiary prizes include a slot on the Gold Cup roster and other international caps. That's what's on offer in the January training camp, but this is no raffle.
"They are in charge of their careers. They are in charge of their next steps," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of the 25 players taking part in the January camp. "If they're here, show great performances, if they stand out, that's their jumping bolt to the next level. Everybody that is in camp is in charge of their own situation. We are helpless as coaches. We help them to understand the next level – what it takes to get to the next level – but they got to do it."
The current roster training at the Home Depot Center ahead of the Jan. 29 friendly against Canada largely draws on out-of-season MLS players. Only four don't play in the domestic league, and even that quartet is sparingly involved in major international matches. All have a point to prove ahead of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
"Guys have it on the back of their mind, and Jurgen's told everyone that everyone's got a chance," Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman said.
Klinsmann estimated that 6-to-9 players from this group will make it onto the roster that travels to Honduras for the Feb. 6 Hexagonal matchup in San Pedro Sula.
One of those will likely be Graham Zusi. Klinsmann singled out the Sporting Kansas City midfielder – as well as Geoff Cameron – as an example of how a January camp can ignite a career. Zusi participated in the preseason camp a year ago, impressed by scoring the winner against Panama, and ended up featuring in three World Cup qualifiers in 2012.
"Last year was my first time with the national team," Zusi said. "What I went in there looking to do was to make an impression, a lasting impression and make the decision tough for them not to have me back."
Cameron has locked down a starting role in central defense for the Yanks and parlayed his increased form to a move to Stoke City in the English Premier League.
Zusi's objective during his first taste of international play 12 months ago was simple: "To get better every time I came into camp. That was kind of my main goal with the sporadic camps here and there throughout the year."
His strike in a 1-0 victory over Panama in a friendly last January helped his confidence, and he gradually adjusted to the switches between club and country more smoothly. Klinsmann's upbeat coaching also helped with the transition.
"He's an extremely optimistic, positive person to play under. That really helps with young guys' confidence," Zusi said. "He doesn't cut you down in order to build you up. It's more of a positive reinforcement, really highlight what you're doing well."
Beckerman used the expression "building us up" three times within a minute.
The overlap between this roster and the final World Cup roster will be minimal. But Klinsmann and his staff will try to coax improvement out of everyone in camp.
"We tell them that, 'You are here, because you are good. Now our job is to make you understand that for the next level you have to get better,'" Klinsmann said.
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