With January camp under way in Carson, California, there are a number of new faces to the young group. Jurgen Klinsmann has called in 28 players to the month-long training camp leading up to a January 28 friendly with Chile.
There’s a clear goal with this camp. As Klinsmann has named just seven players who were present in Brazil at the World Cup this summer, there are 14 uncapped members of the senior squad, including 12 of which who are of Olympic age. It’s as green as can be, and with the Gold Cup this summer and the next World Cup what seems like light years away, the U.S. coaching staff is hoping for somewhat of a fresh start.
One of those players is a complete unknown, at least to the general USMNT fan, simply because he has hardly featured in the U.S. picture up to this point, at any level. But to goalkeeper Alex Bono, who received quite the surprise nearly two weeks ago, that doesn’t mean much now.
“Obviously you would like to be at those youth national team camps,” Bono said. “But the fact that I haven’t doesn’t bother me now and I’ve gotten the call here. Things happen. Rosters are made, teams are picked, and players don’t make cuts, and that’s the way things go. But I’m honored to have gotten this call.”
Bono is a 20-year-old from Baldwinsville, NY, part of the city of Syracuse. That led him to Syracuse University to play his college ball, which in itself is quite the inauspicious start for a national team player. Syracuse, the year before Bono’s arrival, won three games. All year. The year before that, they won just two. It was a rocky start for new head coach Ian McIntyre, a Basildon, England native.
The project was daunting, but under the guidance of McIntyre, Bono and his teammates turned things around – and fast. In Bono’s freshman year, Syracuse went 14-6-1 and made both the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Then, after a “down” sophomore year of 10 wins, they exploded this season.
“As players at that point my freshman year, all the guys on the team said wow it can’t get much better than this,” Bono said. “But it did.”
It sure did. Buckle up. The team this year went 16-4-1, earning the school’s first #1 national ranking ever, and made noise in the NCAA tournament. The team started off the season on an unprecedented run, winning 11 of its first 12 games. Bono and his defense conceded a pint-sized three goals over that span. Ultimately, Bono worked to finish the year with an ACC-leading 0.55 goals against average, and gobbled up 12 shutouts, also an ACC best.
He was selected by Toronto FC in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft, sixth overall. He became the first Syracuse player ever selected in the first round of the draft (Teammate Skylar Thomas also went in the first round this year, 11th to Toronto as well).
So to say it’s been a rise to the top for Bono is an understatement. A meteoric one would be more appropriate. Especially when you consider where he came from. Not only did he attend then-minnows Syracuse, but he started even before that at a club in Upstate New York called Empire United.
Tommy Tanner and Peter Ramin, both working for Empire, are friends of Bono’s family and convinced him to join Empire when he was 13 years old. Just like any other kid looking for special training, Alex tried out. He made the team and clearly stood out, but there was a glitch, one that gave him a little extra push.
“We had a ‘keeper at the age group one year ahead of him that was also a standout ‘keeper,” Ramin said. That goalkeeper was Andrew Coughlin, who also played at Syracuse for a year before transferring to nearby Canisius. “That team was the older team – normally we would have pushed Alex up to play on that team, that was our best team in the club that won the New York state championship a number of times. But Alex was humble enough and courteous enough to stay down and play at his true age group, and I really think that helped him a lot because that team wasn’t that good.”
So Alex passed up a chance at state championship glory, and instead got pummeled in goal. This, both Ramin and Tanner say, was a key moment in his development. Alex was stuck behind Coughlin in high school for a while as well, but that ended up working out in the long run as well. “We didn’t have to be too creative [to find Alex],” said McIntyre. “He goes to school 15 minutes down the road, so it would have been a real mess-up had we not identified a player of his talents.”
All this led him to now. Having left Syracuse after his junior season for the MLS draft, he got the call that had eluded him for so long. A call to the national team setup. And it came directly from Jurgen Klinsmann.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Bono said of his call from Klinsmann. Bono was in the on his way back from the presentation of the MAC Hermann award, the college soccer version of the Heisman. Bono was in the airport, and not having been in the youth national picture his entire development, the call wasn’t only a surprise, it came out of nowhere. No warning, no hints, not even an inkling that something might be coming. “I got the call Friday morning [January 9] with no expectation, I didn’t even think a call like that was coming, and when it did I was just so overwhelmed and honored to be attending.”
Alex was too professional to mention this, but one of his coaches ratted him out. “Alex did not believe it was Jurgen Klinsmann,” Tanner said, having heard from his family about the call. “He thought it was one of his buddies joking around with him.”
But, after being overlooked and finally forcing his way through the door, giving the coaches few other options, he’s on the scene and he’s ready to work. Hard.
“He’s just a really hard-working kid who’s worked very hard to get where he is,” Tanner said. “He deserves the accolades he’s getting right now. I told his dad for four years he needed to come join the club, and he finally did, and Alex has gone on from there.”
We would, however, be completely remiss to leave out two very important people from Alex’s story, his parents. Both coaches mentioned how wonderful the Bono family was in terms of his upbringing and his development, and it shows. In this day where mothers and fathers control every aspect of their prodigy children’s athletic upbringing, and are often obnoxious in the process, Alex’s parents let the coaches and Alex make the decisions. Tanner and Ramin both made sure to point out that Alex’s parents were completely on board with keeping their kid down a level through the academy, and Alex himself was quick to go a step further.
“I should start with my parents,” Alex said when asked about his biggest influences on his career. “Not necessarily my soccer development, but my development as a person.”
But now that he’s on the big stage, it wouldn’t have been a complete interview without asking one particular question of the 20-year-old. Of any player at the national team camp, who would you most like to stop a shot against? It took him a moment, but he settled on one name.
“Jermaine Jones,” Alex said assuredly. With his former club Empire signing on as a New England Revolution affiliate recently, Alex got the chance to train with the senior team a few months ago. “He’s had some good goals for the national team, he’s got a powerful strike, and when I went to train with New England over the summer, I left the week before they signed him, so I didn’t get the chance to face him.”
Now they’re teammates with the U.S. national team. Meteoric rise, indeed.
He may or may not play in the immediate future, but with the Gold Cup, the Olympics, and plenty of time to develop before the next World Cup, Alex Bono is a name for U.S. fans to remember.