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5 reasons to cool your takes on Bruce Arena’s January roster

An informal history of January Camp: it’s always been a bit of an MLS science lab, and that’s exactly what’s happening again.

MLS: Los Angeles Galaxy at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

So here we are. Another Chris Wondolowski call-up has you eyeing your grandmom’s Life Alert necklace and somewhere the Cult of TommyMac is ringing up the Irish FA out of spite.

Beloved reader, I too am saddened by the absence of our favorite mulleted midfielder, but fear not. This January Camp roster is a weird one, with well-deserved invitations and more than a few that’s left fans scratching their heads as well. But history and the USMNT’s current predicament tell us to trust the process and hope we don’t end up like the 76ers.

January Camp Was Invented to Examine MLS Players Almost Exclusively

In fact, Bruce Arena was the one who formalized the whole “January Camp” thing in the first place. Sure, there had been camps in January prior to Bruce’s tenure, but he was the one who established an annual camp in January specifically to get a look at MLS players during their offseason. Because of the non-feasibility of a winter schedule for MLS (good luck in New England, New York, Colorado, Salt Lake City, etc), MLS has and still follows the Spring-Fall schedule that the Scandinavian leagues also use for the same reasons. There’s no official FIFA window in January, which leaves players in other leagues with their clubs. So with a big old hole in the schedule and a chunk of the first-stringers missing, it’s time for the MLSers to get a shot at making a roster beyond January. I’m sorry that Christian Pulisic isn’t in this camp, but I guarantee he’s spending his time well in Spain in the meantime.

There’s Almost Always a Player or Two Who Becomes a First-Team Regular

A host of USMNT regulars made their early senior team impressions at January Camp. Some of them, like Clint Dempsey, have become absolutely invaluable to the national side. Others, like Gyasi Zardes, may or may not have rocks for feet (he had a good Copa America yaddayaddayadda). But the fringe picks here, both young and old, are here because Arena isn’t trying to leave stones unturned. Sure, Matt Hedges and Walker Zimmerman have been on MLS fans’ radars as two good and relatively young American center backs thriving for FC Dallas. Chad Marshall is a much more known entity, with the book seemingly closed on any international career. But all three have been playing well in MLS, and so Arena’s going to see if any of them will work. The experimentation period this go-round is incredibly short: about three months. Time to flip as many stones as he can.

There’s Always Veterans There to Push the Young Guns

People want to see Kekutah Manneh and Jordan Morris and Darlington Nagbe become the next big thing. They love to see them get call-ups like this. People don’t want to see Chris Wondolowski or even Benny Feilhaber. But just as much as the veteran MLS guys are trying to stake a place in Bruce Arena’s team, they’re also in camp to be a litmus test for younger prospects. If Taylor Kemp can’t out-defend Brad Evans, Evans may or may not be in Arena’s plans, but Kemp probably isn’t getting a call in March. Maybe a young guy has all the talent but needs something of a mentor. Or maybe they just need to get burned on the outside by Damarcus Beasley so they know what time it is. Sure, Arena wanted to reward players for good play in MLS, but every player here serves a purpose as well.

The Snubs are Minimal

I’m sorry TommyMac fans. I like to watch him curl that ball into the upper corner from the top of the box with his right foot as much as the next guy. But he’s in a crowded position, and at this point, we’re really scraping for possible international-level talent here. Lee Nguyen is being monitored, sure. Maybe Cristian Roldan has a gripe. But even if I think any one of those guys or all three of those guys should be in camp, I’d be lying if I honestly thought they would be making a big difference for the USMNT’s qualifying chances. Which brings me to the last point...

Bruce Isn’t Here to Lead Development

That’s the role that Jurgen Klinsmann assumed when USSF invested so heavily in him as head coach and technical director. Arena has one job as a coach: get the U.S. into the World Cup. And so all the stone-flipping and examining of MLS veterans and youngsters is going to be very pragmatic this time around: Arena needs players that will contribute right now. Not a couple years to develop into a savvy player. He needs players ready to step onto the field in March and win a qualifying match. So while January Camp is usually more friendly confines for younger, unestablished players, this one might have a bit more cutthroat feel.