As January camps go, the 2023 edition was like no other for the U.S. men's national team.
For one, it was an abbreviated version, lasting all of eight days as opposed to the multiweek slogs of years past. While there was always going to be a focus on youth with this squad, 12 players made their international debuts during this get-together that included matches against Serbia and Colombia, breaking the record of eight set back in 2006.
Then there was the fact that the U.S. were managed on an interim basis by Anthony Hudson. The Seattle-born Englishman was asked to lead the group with Gregg Berhalter being in limbo thanks to the combination of an expired contract and the U.S. Soccer Federation's ongoing investigation into an incident of domestic violence involving him and his wife, Rosalind, from 1991.
It was by no means the first or even the second time an interim manager had overseen the January camp. Bob Bradley filled the role in similar fashion in 2007 before earning the gig full time later that year. Dave Sarachan also managed the team on an interim basis in 2018, although that tag was stretched to its limit given that he was in charge of the side for just over a year.
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But Hudson's situation has its own unique twist beyond the circumstances by which he took over, in that he'll be overseeing actual competitive matches with the interim tag still attached. That's because while Camp Cupcake was taking place in Carson, California, Camp Chaos was reigning at USSF headquarters in Chicago, with both sporting director Earnie Stewart and USMNT GM Brian McBride departing the organization.
With USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone stating that Stewart's replacement might not be named until the end of the summer and that said successor would lead the search for the next USMNT manager, Hudson looks set to be leading the U.S. through the CONCACAF Nations League games in March and (it is expected) June, followed by the Gold Cup shortly thereafter. By his own admission, that is more than he bargained for.
"I wasn't really expecting any of any of this, how this has evolved," he said on Friday. He later added, "I'll continue doing all I can."
Hudson's extended time in charge makes it look like he'll have a lot of time to put his stamp on things, but in reality, he doesn't. He said before the Colombia game that he'll have only four days or so in March to work with the team ahead of games at Grenada and home to El Salvador. Therefore, his approach in the just-concluded camp and in the future is one akin to "steady as they go," one that makes sense to U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman.
"I think [Hudson's] done a great job of simplifying things for this group for this week," he said. "We know [for] the game's going to be in March, depending on who's called in, we're going continue this process that we've been going through over the past four years. So from a playing standpoint, it's not like we're coming in brand new, and he's trying to implement new things. It's, 'We're going to continue this process of what we've been doing, because we've had some success doing it.'"
Granted, the youthful nature of the side that reached the round of 16 in Qatar means the players occupying the higher tiers of the pool are largely set, but simply having the team tread water is a less than ideal scenario ahead of what is clearly the most important period in the program's history: In less than four years, the U.S. will share hosting duties with Canada and Mexico for the 2026 World Cup.
Hudson is well aware that he's only keeping the seat warm until the next manager is named. While some might point to his lackluster record with the Colorado Rapids (8 wins, 26 losses, 9 ties) as disqualifying, such realities are tempered by the fact that Hudson does have experience managing at the international level -- modest as that is -- with stints in charge of Bahrain and New Zealand. His familiarity with the U.S. players is also a plus.
Moving deeper into 2023 with an interim manager raises other concerns. One of the strengths of Berhalter's tenure was his success in getting dual nationals like Sergino Dest, Yunus Musah and Ricardo Pepi to commit to the U.S. cause. Will such efforts suffer under an interim manager?
Back when Sarachan was interim manager, there was much gnashing of teeth in U.S. circles when Mexico snatched Monterrey midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez away from the U.S., with the allegation being that the U.S. administration took its collective eye off the ball. The fact that Gonzalez's career has regressed since then meant the U.S. didn't get punished as much as it could have, but the case is still instructive.
Recruitment of dual nationals requires near constant attention, and it's a key question as the latest chapter in the Mexico-U.S. tug-of-war for players is already playing out, with Club America midfielder Alejandro Zendejas still yet to make up his mind over which country he'll pledge his international future.
The fact that Zendejas agreed to take part in the Serbia match with Hudson in charge bodes well in some respects. It was an opportunity to reforge some ties with a player who had previously represented the U.S. at the youth level. But it also seems unrealistic to think Zendejas will fully commit to the U.S. program without a permanent head coach. This was borne out in his comments to the media, in which he tenaciously stuck to his "I'm just enjoying the moment" mantra. It's a situation that will be scrutinized in obsessive detail in the coming months.
Zendejas was one of two players who showed enough quality to get consideration for a call-up for the Nations League games in March, with FC Cincinnati forward Brandon Vazquez the other. Zendejas showed his quality on the ball, especially late in the match against Serbia, while Vazquez nodded home the only U.S. goal over two matches. He'll have competition for sure -- Daryl Dike has begun finding the net for West Bromwich Albion -- but if he can reprise his form of last season, when he scored 19 goals in the MLS regular season and playoffs, he should get in the door.
For everyone else, there appears to be too much of a logjam at each of the positions. Full-back always seems to be a spot where the U.S. is short of depth, but it seems unlikely that the likes of the New York Red Bulls' John Tolkin or the New England Revolution's DeJuan Jones did enough to dislodge players like Borussia Monchengladbach's Joe Scally or Nashville SC's Shaq Moore for the March window. That's on top of presumed starters Antonee Robinson and Dest.
The same is true for Cade Cowell, who, as impressive as he was against Serbia, has the misfortune of playing a position -- winger -- where the U.S. is deepest. A player like Paxten Aaronson still has a passel of players to try to climb over for an advanced midfield role, too.
But there is value in taking the long view, like Hudson did to a large extent this window. Some players like Aaronson and Cowell could find themselves at the FIFA U20 World Cup later this year. And given the close proximity between the Nations League final and the Gold Cup in June, it remains to be seen if the U.S. will field a B-team roster in the latter competition, like Berhalter did in 2021. That tournament saw the likes of Miles Robinson and Matt Turner stake their claim to spots with the full team, and following that approach this time could yield similar results.
These are the questions that Hudson will now have to weigh, even amid the instability above him.