LOS ANGELES – Southern California is the hub of American soccer this week as players gather for training camps, leagues in varying degrees of stability prepare for a new year, and thousands from all corners of the sport converge for the annual National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention.
The spotlight is tightest on the men’s national team, which, after a bruising autumn, will get back to work with an old/new leader. Attention is also honed on the women’s game, both the world champion troupe and the pro circuit that supplies its work force.
A look at the factions:
U.S. MEN: With a 2018 World Cup berth in jeopardy, Bruce Arena takes the reins from Jurgen Klinsmann and begins his second tenure with a month-long training camp at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
Players based in Europe and Mexico are not available because of club commitments, so Arena will assemble 32 players from MLS teams, which are in winter hibernation for two more weeks. Camp will open Wednesday and culminate with friendlies against Serbia on Jan. 29 in San Diego and Jamaica on Feb. 3 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
With many key absences, these workouts will not rectify the issues that led to two defeats – and Klinsmann’s dismissal. But it will allow Arena, the national team guide from 1998 to 2006, to bond with the domestic player pool, identify new contributors and experiment before the full delegation unites four days before crucial qualifiers against Honduras and Panama in late March.
The current camp features regulars (such as Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones), second-chancers (Benny Feilhaber, Darlington Nagbe, Dax McCarty) and beginners (Sebastian Lleget, Keegan Rosenberry, Taylor Kemp).
U.S. WOMEN: Despite the expiration of its collective bargaining agreement, the 2015 World Cup champions will get back at it Friday in Carson. As talks continue, the sides are operating under the previous terms. Neither has called for a work stoppage.
Amid this contentious backdrop, Coach Jill Ellis will have almost her full complement of players for an 11-day camp. With the World Cup 2½ years away, there are no pressing matters. Instead, Ellis will use the time to evaluate youngsters and begin to gauge the long-term capacity of the regulars. Hope Solo, the brilliant but belligerent goalkeeper, remains banned.
The next test will come the first week of March with the SheBelieves Cup, a second-year tournament featuring four of FIFA’s five top-ranked teams. Olympic gold medalist Germany, plus France and England, will join the Americans for three doubleheaders. East Coast venues are being finalized.
MLS: The first matter of business is the scouting combine, which began Sunday in Carson and set the stage for Friday’s draft at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Expansion clubs in Minnesota and Atlanta hold the top picks.
First-round prospects include Bethesda’s Jeremy Ebobisse (Duke), Bowie’s Jacori Hayes (Wake Forest) and Mitchellville’s Chris Odoi-Atsem (Maryland). Ebobisse is a likely top-three pick. Maryland star Gordon Wild said, barring a new offer from MLS, he will return to College Park for his junior year.
The nation’s best player, Hermann Trophy winner Ian Harkes, a Gonzaga High and Wake Forest graduate, is not available in the draft because, as a former D.C. United academy member, the local club owns his homegrown rights. The sides are deep in negotiations.
NWSL: The female Hermann Trophy recipient is not available to be drafted, either. West Virginia’s Kadeisha Buchanan, a Canadian national team defender, is snubbing the U.S. circuit to play in France. Ashley Lawrence, Buchanan’s teammate for college and country, is doing the same.
Their moves abroad coincide with the NWSL’s most exciting young player, Crystal Dunn, ditching the Washington Spirit for English club Chelsea and U.S. star forward Alex Morgan signing with a French team. (Morgan is slated to return to Orlando this summer.)
Meantime, the Western New York Flash, which won the 2016 championship, is reportedly moving to the Raleigh area. And separate reports say MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps might field an NWSL team, which would expand the league’s footprint into Canada in 2018.
LOWER DIVISIONS: Late Friday, the U.S. Soccer Federation reached a temporary solution on the status of the men’s leagues that sit below MLS. The dying North American Soccer League retained its place in the second division and the prospering United Soccer League rose to the second flight from the third tier.
Because both fall short in some areas for second-division ranking, the USSF granted provisional status to both. The lifeline tossed to the eight-team NASL probably prevented closure of the league, which barely resembles its namesake of yesteryear. Meantime, the USL will enter the 2017 season with 30 clubs, most of which have ties to MLS organizations through ownership or affiliation agreements.