The U.S. men’s national team is in the midst of its annual, monthlong January training camp, and the eyes of the U.S. soccer world are focused on next week’s friendly matches with Iceland and Canada.
Eric Miller, a former Woodbury High School player who was called up to the senior national team for the first time this month, is looking forward to next week as well — but March may be more on his mind. That’s when the American under-23 team will play Colombia home and away, with Olympic qualification on the line.
“I think in the back of our mind we’re all thinking about Colombia in March, and how these games can help us with those games,” said Miller, a two-year MLS veteran who has played numerous times for U.S. youth national teams. He’s one of 11 players in the camp who could see the field against Colombia, a sign that U.S. technical director Jurgen Klinsmann is taking Olympic qualification seriously.
The Olympic men’s tournament doesn’t get the attention of a World Cup or the European championships, but it’s quite important to Miller — especially after a disappointing 2015 for the men’s national teams. “I think it’s hugely important to show where your youth program is at,” he said. “The year wasn’t what everybody wanted it to be, but if you can show a lot of progress with your youth, that shows a sign of what’s to come, and people can get excited about that.”
It’s also personally important to the young fullback, who dealt with several injuries in 2015, leading to an extended spell on the bench for MLS’ Montreal Impact. After playing 21 games in his rookie season in 2014, Miller — who just turned 23 — played only nine games in his second year and is looking to bounce back.
“I don’t know if I’d say it was a lost year, but I think I learned a lot, on and off the field,” he said. “I came into the league right away, and I was starting right away, so I never really had to re-evaluate where I was at, what I was good at and what I was bad at. Being out of the team for a while causes you to do that.”
Fullback has been a weak position for the U.S. for decades, and so Miller still has his sights set high, on filling that gap with the senior national team.
“That’s something you think about all the time, even when you’re a lot younger than I am,” he said. “It’s not a position we’ve produced a ton of players at. I think a camp like this is a great opportunity to make an impact and show what you can do.”
It’ll be a whirlwind for Miller this year, with Iceland and Canada next week, then competing to make the lineup in Montreal and the tough business of qualification against Colombia. If all goes well, though, he’s looking at another trip this year — to Rio de Janeiro, as an Olympian.
• FC Kansas City has won two consecutive NWSL championships, but its attempt to three-peat in 2016 is looking like an uphill battle. Forward Amy Rodriguez, a national team standout, announced at the beginning of January that she was pregnant and would miss most of the season. In response, KC traded for her fellow U.S. forward Sydney Leroux — who, three weeks later, announced that she too was pregnant and would miss the season.
• You have to admire young U.S. center back Matt Miazga, who is headed to Chelsea after a breakout season with the New York Red Bulls.
Chelsea is struggling defensively but has nine defenders currently out on loan; clearly Miazga doesn’t shy away from that competition, or from an English media that slammed Chelsea for signing an “unknown.”
• U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones, still without a club, described his six-game MLS suspension as “crazy.” Given that Jones was suspended for running half the field to shove the referee, his take is certainly debatable.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
La Liga: Atletico Madrid at Barcelona, 9 a.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. Atletico slipped to a draw last weekend against Sevilla, dropping it into a tie with Barcelona for the league lead — and Barca has a game in hand. The visitors boast perhaps the best defense in Europe, but they’ll face a tall order keeping Barca’s big three — Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez — off the scoreboard.
FA Cup: West Ham at Liverpool, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2.
It’s been quite the week for Liverpool. Last weekend, the Reds won a 5-4 thriller at Norwich after scoring in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Tuesday, Liverpool needed penalties to beat Stoke City and go through to the League Cup final. More excitement might be needed; West Ham has beaten Liverpool twice already this year.
FA Cup: Everton at Carlisle United, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, FS2. Just one month ago, Carlisle’s stadium was entirely under water, as the Cumbria region endured its worst flooding in decades. The Carlisle players, away at an early-round FA Cup game, returned to find their cars submerged. Now, the League Two side hosts Everton. Can Carlisle wash away its Premier League visitors?
Men’s friendly: Iceland at U.S., 3 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2. It will take a while for the Americans’ disappointing 2015 to fade from memory, but perhaps a pair of winnable friendlies (this, and Friday against Canada) will help ease the pain. A few well-known U.S. players are away with their club teams; this might be a chance to see some up-and-coming young players get playing time.