About the only thing going in the American soccer world in January is the annual training camp for the U.S. national teams. On the men’s side, it’s a chance for younger players, mostly MLS players in their offseason, to show the national team what they can do. It’s just two weeks of practice followed by a meaningless friendly. But for the players — many of whom are getting their first taste of international soccer — this is a big deal.
Here are four questions seeking answers during this camp.
Can Christian Ramirez convince yet another set of doubters? No American scored as many non-penalty kick goals in MLS last season as Ramirez, not even national-team veteran Jozy Altidore. Even back to his college days, people have doubted the Minnesota United striker, and he has always responded by scoring goals. He did it in college, then in the professional lower divisions, and now in MLS. The mystery is that it took until now for Ramirez to get a national team shot, especially given the USA’s long, fruitless search for a dependable target man. Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo, Ramirez’s competition at this camp, both have played two dozen international games, but Ramirez is a better pure goal scorer than either.
Where will Tyler Adams play? Adams, just 18 years old, drew less attention playing for the New York Red Bulls while fellow teenage midfield standouts Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie lit up the German top division. Adams was the best teenager in MLS last year, and was nearly the spark that knocked all-conquering Toronto FC out of the playoffs. American fans would be forgiven for mentally trying to puzzle out where to slot Adams alongside Pulisic and McKennie for a decade or so. Which position will each play?
Who’s next in line at goalkeeper? Tim Howard has been the USA’s first-choice goalkeeper for about forever, with Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando serving as backups. Now, Howard and Rimando are nearing 40. Guzan will be almost 38 by the 2022 World Cup. Bill Hamid, at 27, might be the next choice, though he could leave partway through this camp to rejoin his Danish club.
Does Ike Opara look like an international-quality center back? Opara, at 28, is older than your typical national-team debutant, but that might be more to do with injuries than anything else. After getting hurt in each of the past three years, Opara played a year for Sporting Kansas City without injury and was a no-brainer pick for the MLS Best XI. The USA needs depth at center back, and Opara could be very useful — as long as he can stay healthy.
For some players, like Adams, this is just a first chance to play with the national team. For others, like Ramirez or Opara, this might be their best chance. Whatever their fates in camp, we should learn a lot about the national team’s future starting this month.
• The USA suffered a setback this week when Monterrey midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, who was born and raised in California and had played for the USA’s youth national teams, announced that he is planning to switch countries and play for the Mexico senior team. Gonzalez made the Liga MX Best XI last fall as a teenager with one of Mexico’s biggest clubs.
• In a first for soccer in Saudi Arabia, a match Friday in Jiddah between local teams Al-Ahli and Al-Batin marked the first time that women were allowed to attend a game at a public stadium. It’s a long overdue step in the government’s efforts to ease gender restrictions.
• The North America Soccer League is near folding and won’t be able to play its normal spring season, but its sense of chutzpah remains undiminished. The league claimed that the failure to start next season on time was a planned switch to a fall-to-spring calendar, to align with the traditional soccer season in the rest of the world. NASL clubs weren’t fooled. Indy joined the USL instead, and Jacksonville announced it was in the market for a new league. That leaves the NASL with three established teams and two potential expansion sides.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Leicester City at Chelsea, 9 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Seventh place in the Premier League could well qualify for the Europa League next season, depending on results, and Leicester City is within four points of that spot. Getting a result at Stamford Bridge won’t be easy, though, not with Chelsea fighting to stay in the top four.
La Liga: Villareal at Real Madrid, 9:15 a.m. Saturday, beIN. Forget Real Madrid winning the Spanish league — at the moment, the reigning Spanish champions are in more danger of falling out of the top four. They are the same distance from first place as they are to 17th. A home victory over Villareal, itself chasing a European spot, would be a start.
Bundesliga: Schalke at RB Leipzig, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Apart from Bayern Munich at the top of the league, the German standings are so tight that Leipzig could end the day in second place or eighth place, depending on the results. Schalke leads this pack but is distracted, with all-everything striker Leon Goretzka seemingly determined to leave.
Premier League: Manchester City at Liverpool, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. The title race is all but over; now we’re just circling dates on the calendar where Manchester City could potentially lose its undefeated season. Liverpool hasn’t lost at home all year but has drawn nearly half of those home games. Could Mo Salah and company hand Man City its first loss?