Even after ‘rethink’, Klinsmann should find value in U.S.’s January camps

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CARSON, Calif. – You get the feeling if Jurgen Klinsmann had his way, there would be no January camp. In the wake to the U.S. men’s 2-0 win over South Korea on Saturday, the national team’s head coach pretty much said so.

Asked to reflect on his latest camp with mostly Major League Soccer-based talent, Klinsmann conceded the three-and-a-half week exercise was “very important” and “valuable,” particularly in a World Cup year. It allowed the team to get to Brazil, test the facilities ahead of this summer’s World Cup, and gather information that will inform May’s tough decisions.

More pointedly, however, Klinsmann said keeping his players in shape should not be the national team’s job.

“We have to cut [the players’] long break short. They can’t afford to have another month off,” Klinsmann said, falling back onto one of his favorite topics: The short Major League Soccer season.

“The camp was always looked at as a camp to get them back into shape … it shouldn’t be our job to cut their [offseason] shorter. That is the job of MLS. I always mention that I would like see the MLS season lengthened. Now we’re getting more teams, especially in 2015. So hopefully that happens.”

Should the league ever adopt that schedule – a change league commissioner Don Garber has described as impractical, in the near-term – Major League Soccer’s veterans will lose what’s become a valuable avenue into the U.S. squad. Among those who stood out in Saturday’s game, players like Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, and San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski have been able to use the prolonged camps to raise their stock. Two of those players are seen be some as likely selections for this summer’s World Cup.

“I give these January camps a lot of the credit for why I’m in with the U.S team right now,” Zusi said.

A second round pick out of the University of Maryland in 2009, the Sporting midfielder has had to slowly work his way through MLS success and into the national team. Seen as a probable starter in Brazil, Zusi got his first national team cap at the 2012 January camp.

“This is how I got my start,” Zusi explains. “It’s great way for some of the guys who are kind of around the edge to break in.

“It’s why I did. It’s what other guys have done. It’s what my teammate, Matt Besler, has done. [The camps are] a great way for you to get some quality games in and impress the coaches.”

When asking players about the camp, the ability to impress coaches becomes a reoccurring theme. Unlike a normal international break that gives players a week (at most) with Klinsmann’s staff, a January call-in allows the mostly MLS- and Scandinavia-based talents to be in constant contact with the staff. Particularly with a coach like Klinsmann, for whom extended physical preparation and the ability to assess fitness levels is especially important, the prolonged period is invaluable. It allows the staff to establish a firm baseline for the players’ performance, something that can be used as a reference point for future call-ups.

source: Reuters
With eight goals in his last nine national team appearances, San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski has kept his name in the conversation for World Cup 2014. The former MLS MVP has participated in extended camps each of the last two winters as well as in preparation for the 2013 Gold Cup. (Photo: Reuters.)

“You get a month-long, day-in, day-out (chance) to show and to learn from a great coaching staff,” Wondolowski explained after scoring twice against South Korea. “That only makes you a better player, and to be honest, especially these last two camps, there’ve been some of the most competitive players in there.

“Everyday, guys aren’t taking days off. Guys aren’t taking drills off. We’re trying to win every little small-sided game; every possession game. It just makes you push even harder – makes you better.”

Under Klinsmann, seven players have started the last two winter friendlies. That group features three players with inside tracks to starting jobs in Brazil (Zusi, Besler, Omar Gonzalez). The four other range from likely choices (Beckerman) and regular selections (Brad Evans) to players who’ve emerged as competitors at competitive positions (Wondolowski, Brad Davis). All veterans who were well into their careers in 2010, the seven veterans have been able to use the so-called “Cup Cupcake” to gain new traction toward 2014.

“In the January camp you get such a long period of time to really show what you got, what kind of person you are, what kind of teammate,” explained Beckerman, a player whose work ethic and leadership has been singled out by Klinsmann. A 31-year-old veteran who made his national team debut in 2007, the Real Salt Lake midfielder has gone some periodic consideration to regular selection since Klinsmann took charge.

“It’s definitely a camp you want to be in,” Beckerman said. “There are a lot of guys who aren’t here that would love to be in our shoes. Everybody that was here took full advantage of it.”

It’s an opportunity that may not always be there for the Kyle Beckermans of the world. Should Major League Soccer’s offseason continue to shrink or if Klinsmann decides to take another direction with the winter camps, players like Evans, Davis, and Wondolowski may not get the same a look. The precious time the national team staff has during FIFA windows to evaluate the established call-ins couldn’t be spent with hopefuls. The once-per-cycle, down-year Gold Cups would be veteran’s only chance to augment their MLS results.

source: AP
Graham Zusi was a 25-year-old, three-year MLS veteran when he received his first cap in Jan. 2012. Five months ahead of Brazil, the Sporting Kansas City midfielder is considered a lock for World Cup 2014. (Photo: AP.)

Even for the Beslers, Gonzalezes, and Zusis of the world – players we think of as established contributors to the current team – like without the winter camps would have been more difficult. There would have fewer opportunities to make the lasting impression it takes to win a regular spot. While the talent each player possesses means their break through was always likely, prolonged exposure to Klinsmann’s staff accelerated their progress.

But those are effects you see at the back-end of a World Cup cycle. For 2015, the U.S. looks set to take a different approach.

“We have to rethink the whole idea of the January camp, especially for next year, where there is no World Cup,” Klinsmann said, asked to assess the future of the January camps. “There will be a Gold Cup, yes, but obviously it doesn’t have the same meaning as this World Cup year. Maybe we change some things to [next] camp …”

“Maybe in the future we will more likely look at it as a developmental camp. Maybe we’ll cut it down to younger players and see how we can develop those younger players.”

Even then, according to Brad Evans, the camp will still need its veterans. Dismissing the word “cupcake” (“that’s stupid”) while espousing the virtues of cultivating MLS’s talent, June’s potential starting right back said January will always have a place for players looking to break through.

“Even if it’s just a U-20 camp, you’ll need veterans there to compete and provide experience and guidance,” Evans explained. “[Even then], there’ll always be spots.”

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

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Swansea City’s bid to slow down steamrolling Liverpool begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The rampaging Reds are coming off a 4-3 win that ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League season, and will hope to avoid a let down against desperate Swans.

The Welsh hosts are six points adrift in the race for Premier League safety, and look set for a 5-4-1 with Jordan Ayew the only forward. Wilfried Bony and Oliver McBurnie are on the bench along with attack-minded Luciano Narsingh.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Van der Hoorn, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Ki, Fer, Clucas, Dyer, Ayew. Subs: Nordfeldt, Bartley, Roque Mesa, Carroll, Narsingh, McBurnie, Bony.

Liverpool: Karius, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Can, Wijnaldum, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Milner, Klavan, Lallana, Ings, Solanke, Alexander-Arnold.

Kevin De Bruyne commits to Man City through 2022-23

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Kevin De Bruyne is one of the best players in the world, and he’s committing his prime to the club which has taken him to the next level.

[ MORE: How will Arsenal, Man Utd line up? ]

Manchester City announced a new deal for the Belgian wizard, keeping him at the Etihad Stadium through 2023.

De Bruyne, 26, has posted 31 goals and 38 assists for Pep Guardiola‘s men since returning to England from the Bundesliga, and appreciates being given a lot more money. From ManCity.com:

“As I’ve said previously, my intention has always been to stay here at City, where I’ve felt at home from day one. Not only are we winning – we are playing great football. It’s a pleasure to be a part of and I’m really excited about what we can achieve in the coming years.”

De Bruyne is in the discussion for a Ballon d’Or finalist spot this year, along with Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and others (Hot take: This does seem to be year Ronaldo possibly knocked off, barring a remarkable run in the Champions League or World Cup).

After the swap: Alexis, Mkhi-infused XIs for Man Utd, Arsenal

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The deal is done: Henrikh Mkhitaryan has moved to Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez going the other way in a monumental January move.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

How will it look for each side once the shape’s settled?

Arsenal

When Henrikh Mkhitaryan was at his very best — for Borussia Dortmund in 2014-15 — he was deployed as a left or right wing. He contributed 23 goals and 32 assists in 52 matches during his final season at the Westfalenstadion, and predictably saw those numbers drop as Jose Mourinho consistently moved him toward an attacking center midfield role.

He’ll get the chance to go out wide again at the Emirates Stadium, though perhaps not always to the extreme flanks. Expect Alexandre Lacazette‘s numbers to explode with this move.

Arsene Wenger used a 4-3-3 to batter Crystal Palace 4-1 at the weekend, with Ozil on the right wing and Alex Iwobi on the left. The club still needs better at center defensive mid while Aaron Ramsey is out, so that will likely keep the lineup similar until he returns (at a minimum):

Cech

Bellerin — Mustafi — Koscielny — Montreal

Elneny (Ramsey, eventually)

Xhaka — Wilshere

Ozil — Lacazette — Mkhitaryan

By the way, a lot of Arsenal supporters aren’t feeling great about this (understatement alert):

Manchester United

Alexis Sanchez prefers left wing, too, and Mourinho has a trio of in-form players who like that side of the field. Anthony Martial is red hot but plays wider than Jesse Lingard, and it seems one of them will take the slot of Juan Mata to the right of Paul Pogba in a 4-1-4-1. Marcus Rashford could also see the far right positioning.

But against top competition — continued apologies to Burnley — it’s usually a 4-2-3-1 for Mourinho with Pogba dropping next to Nemanja Matic a little deeper in the formation. Lingard has been getting the run as CAM here, usually to the detriment of Juan Mata. With Alexis as the clear-cut left wing in this formation, it causes real combat for the two other slots between Mata, Lingard, Rashford, and Martial.

So while it’s likely we’d see something like this in a big game for Manchester United…

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Pogba

Martial — Lingard —  Sanchez

Lukaku

… We’d love to see something more like this:

De Gea

Young — Jones — Smalling — Valencia

Matic — Herrera

Pogba

Martial — Lukaku — Sanchez

How do you think Wenger and Mou will run ’em out?

Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap official (video)

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Arsenal and Manchester United have completed their American-style trade, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan joining the Gunners and Alexis Sanchez on board the Red Devils’ train.

Both 29 years old, the playmakers arrive at their new homes with plenty to prove.

More to come…