Think of U.S. Soccer’s January camp as a weeklong job fair, one in which two dozen players with various levels of experience were invited to Southern California to audition for a spot on the national team.
Except the only guy who came away guaranteed of employment was the coach.
Earlier this month, Anthony Hudson, an assistant to head coach Gregg Berhalter the last two years, was asked to guide the team through its first two games of the World Cup cycle — the second being Saturday’s scoreless draw with Colombia at Dignity Health Sports Park — while the federation conducted its standard review of the program and its manager.
That changed in the middle of camp when U.S. Soccer announced that sporting director Earnie Stewart and men’s general manager Brian McBride, the men tasked first with reviewing Berhalter’s performance and deciding whether to re-sign him, were leaving the federation. That put the whole process on hold and gave Hudson a new title: interim coach, through at least the summer.
“Obviously, there’s been some changes,” Hudson said.
That changed little for Hudson, however.
“My focus, until I’m told otherwise, I’m going to do my very best for the team, for the players,” he said. “I am going to do all I can to help the players, help try to improve the team, help try to take the style of play forward and help the staff. I just want … to keep improving things.”
What he was asked to do over the last week was identify new talent from a young roster than included 13 players who have never played for the national team. He did that, giving a record 12 players their U.S. debuts in the two games and getting flashes of brilliance from many of them. Dual-national forwards Alejandro Zendejas and Brandon Vázquez and teenagers Paxten Aaronson and Jalen Neal were among those whom Hudson said shone brightest.
“Brandon Vázquez is someone that’s done really, really well. He’s someone that we would like to see more of,” Hudson said. “Paxten’s a high-potential young player. He has a lot of quality. He’s a bright young player, and we want to support him.”
The Americans, playing a wide-open and entertaining — if ultimately — scoreless game Saturday before a sellout crowd of 27,000 at Dignity Health Sports Park, saw their best three scoring chances all come in the first half. Two of them involved Aaronson, whose older brother Brenden played for the U.S. in last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
Although Colombia’s lightning-quick counterattack kept the U.S. stretched out all night, in the sixth minute Aaronson found himself alone on the left side of box. After taking a pass from Matthew Hoppe, he put a one-timer on goal, but it wasn’t struck well enough and Colombian keeper Alvaro Montero was able to make a diving, one-handed stop. Eight minutes later, Aaronson, who had a relentless work rate, put a try from the center of the box into traffic in the front of goal, where it was deflected away by a Colombian defender.
The other promising try came late in the half when Hoppe rushed into the box on the end of a breakaway, then took the shot himself rather than sliding a pass across the front of the goal for teammate Paul Arriola, who was signaling wildly for the ball. Montero made the easy save, his second and final one on the night.
Vázquez, who scored the only goal in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Serbia, almost got another in the final seconds of regulation time when he just missed getting on the end of a Kellyn Acosta free kick at the far post.
Colombia outshot the U.S. 12-5, but none of its tries was particularly troublesome, with U.S. keeper Sean Johnson, one of five World Cup holdovers on the roster, being called on to make just one save to earn the shutout. He got some help from Neal, who broke up Colombia’s final scoring chance when he slid to disrupt a shot by Frank Fabra three minutes into stoppage time.
Even though the first U.S. training camp of the year ended without a win in multiple games for the first time since 2013, Hudson was eager to call it a success.
“The objective of this camp was to look for new players,” he said. “We achieved our objective.”