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Youthful USMNT wraps up winter camp with scoreless draw vs. Colombia

Sean Johnson watches a Colombian shot roll wide in the first half at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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CARSON, Calif. — The U.S. men’s national soccer team’s annual winter training camp carries a different set of priorities than other gatherings. It’s about introducing — and testing — new players and providing opportunity to those overshadowed by the primary performers, who are preoccupied with club duties abroad this time of year.

Even so, it’s nice to win, too.

Victory twice eluded the young Americans, first Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles against Serbia and then again Saturday in the suburbs during a 0-0 draw with Colombia before an announced sellout of 27,000 at Dignity Health Sports Park.

Three days after interim coach Anthony Hudson rewarded eight players with their first international games, four debuted Saturday: starters Paxten Aaronson and John Tolkin and substitutes Emmanuel Sabbi and Sam Rogers. The 12 debuts are a record for a winter camp, surpassing the eight made over three games in 2006.

“Overall, I think we achieved our objectives,” Hudson said. “There’s a bunch of players we wanted to see with us, we wanted to see in competitive games.”

Aaronson, a 19-year-old midfielder, was a bundle of energy and invention — just like his older brother, Brenden, the World Cup attacker. He had two terrific chances in the first 14 minutes, the second caroming off a defender before knocking the left post.

Matthew Hoppe, set up brilliantly by Jesús Ferreira’s through ball, squandered a one-on-one chance in the 32nd minute, shooting meekly at goalkeeper Alvaro Montero.

The first half was an end-to-end joyride, with neither side embracing defensive tactics. The crowd, which favored the Colombians by a healthy margin, loved it.

The second half did not offer as many opportunities — Brandon Vazquez, Wednesday’s goal scorer in a 2-1 loss, narrowly missed redirecting a free kick deep in the box in the dying moments — but at the end of an experimental week, no one seemed too upset.

The week-long camp was the first U.S. get-together since the World Cup in Qatar in November and December.

Here’s what else to know about the Americans’ draw:

From Rockville to Bahrain, USMNT interim coach Anthony Hudson has paid dues

Dual nationals

Aside from providing experience, the camp provided an opportunity to strengthen bonds with U.S.-born dual nationals who could choose to represent another country.

Vazquez, Alejandro Zendejas, Cade Cowell and Jonathan Gómez are eligible to play for Mexico, and goalkeeper Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina’s parents are Polish immigrants. Cowell, a 19-year-old forward from the San Jose Earthquakes, was a standout in the loss to Serbia.

Slonina, an 18-year-old Chelsea prospect who made his international debut Wednesday, said he’s fully committed to the U.S. program.

His parents “came over here [to Chicago] when they were about 20, 21 years old, with no idea how to speak the language,” he said. “They gave my family an amazing life. They provided us with everything that we have now, so it’s a way of rewarding them. I want to win trophies with this country. ... My heart is American.”

Hudson lauded Vazquez and Zendejas. They seem most likely of the 24 players in winter camp to receive call-ups in March when the full player pool is available. If they play in Concacaf Nations League matches, they would no longer be eligible to play for Mexico.

Ferreira, who committed to playing for the United States three years ago, started Saturday against the country where he was born. His father, David, played 39 times for the Colombian national team and, when Jesús was 10, moved the family to Texas after signing with FC Dallas.

Johnson back in net

Sean Johnson, the third-string goalkeeper at the World Cup, made his first start since a June friendly against Uruguay. The assignment came a day after he signed with Toronto FC following six seasons (and an MLS Cup championship) with New York City FC and seven with the Chicago Fire. The Colombians did not seriously test him.

All five World Cup members invited to camp started Saturday: Johnson, Ferreira, center backs Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long and defensive midfielder Kellyn Acosta.

In another U.S. soccer shake-up, sporting director Earnie Stewart to depart

What’s next?

Matches of consequence return to the schedule in March when the Americans seek to clinch a place in the Nations League semifinals in early June. A triumph at Grenada on March 24 and a victory or a draw against El Salvador at home March 27 would secure passage. The U.S. Soccer Federation is expected to name Orlando as the venue for the El Salvador game.

The Concacaf Gold Cup will commence June 24. Top players from European clubs are available for selection to all of those matches.

Breaking down Colombia

Like the United States, Colombia did not have access to top European-based players, such as Luis Díaz (Liverpool), Juan Cuadrado (Juventus) and James Rodríguez (Olympiacos).

Most of the call-ups came from the Colombian league and MLS, most notably Columbus Crew forward Cucho Hernández (nine goals in 16 MLS appearances last year) and Los Angeles FC’s Cristian Arango, a 32-goal scorer in 54 regular season and playoff matches over two seasons.

Colombia did not qualify for the World Cup in Qatar, finishing sixth in South American competition after claiming third at the 2021 Copa América in Brazil.