The annual January camp has long been a place for new faces to break into the U.S. national team, but failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has led to a much younger group than usual this year. Missing are longtime veterans like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore. In their places are players of a new generation who have made good impressions so far.
Over the past two weeks, the U.S. has been training in Carson, California, preparing for Sunday's friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina at StubHub Center. With Bruce Arena parting ways with the team following the failed World Cup qualifying run, Dave Sarachan has been put in charge to start a new era.
So far, the caretaker coach likes what he's seeing from the new crop of talent.
"The attitude and enthusiasm of this group has been really refreshing," Sarachan told Goal. "I've been around a lot of January camps that would always be labeled as a grind, but I think from my standpoint — and you can ask the players — you'd never use the word grind in this case. It's been very positive.
"They came in with their eyes wide open, very eager to be a part of it, very eager to impress. From the start, to where we are now towards the end of the camp, there's been no tail-off in terms of their day to day work."
Sarachan has brought together a squad light on national team experience. That has created an opportunity for some new leaders to emerge, much like we saw in November's friendly against Portugal, when John Brooks and Danny Williams took on those roles.
"With every new cycle, and every new camp, when there's new faces, some of the veteran guys that have been a part of the past can now emerge, whereas in the past it wasn't their time or their role," Sarachan said. "It's a really key piece in every team, the veteran leadership piece.
"Clearly the older guys that are here — Justin Morrow, Ike Opara — have been looked to for a little bit more leadership given their age and experience," he added. "But even a guy like Jordan Morris — who is a young guy relatively speaking but has a lot of veteran miles on him given his experience in qualifying and the Gold Cup — I think he's taken on a little bit of leadership as well. Even C.J. Sapong, being an older guy, I think that's been a natural attraction for younger players to get their perspective on a lot of things."
Although the 23-year-old Morris endured some growing pains in 2017, veterans Morrow and Opara are coming off standout seasons in MLS. While Morrow helped Toronto FC win the MLS Cup title during a Best XI season, Opara earned MLS Defender of the Year honors with Sporting Kansas City.
"[I'm] just trying to come in and be a leader if I can," Morris said. "I know when I came into my first camps, having someone to talk to that's been through it all before was very beneficial. Definitely trying to be there for the young guys if they need anything."
Sarachan finds himself in the unique position of leading a team he won't be in charge of much longer, with a full-time head coach expected to be hired at some point in the spring or summer. But the former Chicago Fire head coach is treating this camp and the upcoming friendly the same way he would if he had been named the long-term replacement for Arena.
"The fundamentals of piecing together a team won't change, regardless of the title I have," Sarachan said. "We get the group in on day one, we talk about what our goals and objectives are, then you evaluate and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the group, and then a system begins to take form.
"It takes shape really depending on the players, and that's how I approach it."
Sarachan said he has yet to settle on a system after trying a few different approaches in camp but will decide one in the buildup to Sunday's friendly. Based on available personnel, there is a good chance the U.S. could be deployed in a 4-5-1, like the Americans used against Portugal, with Sapong operating as the target striker and the team's wealth of talent in central midfield anchoring the middle.
"Regardless of the system, we're going to be aggressive and try to press when we can, and play without fear," Sarachan said. "I think the group in November embraced it, and I'm expecting this group will embrace it."
Sapong, Tyler Adams and Juan Agudelo are the only players in the current camp who started against Portugal, but there are several others who were a part of the Gold Cup-winning squad last summer, including Morris, Cristian Roldan, Paul Arriola and Bill Hamid.
That core should help make up the nucleus of the squad that takes the field Sunday, though Sarachan was careful to point out that players who don't make the matchday squad didn't necessarily have a poor camp.
"Of 29 players that we have here, I wouldn't come away and say, 'This guy doesn't belong in this group' about anybody," Sarachan said. "From top to bottom, the margins are real thin. It's a good group."