After drawing the attention of the world with its stunning run to the Confederations Cup final, the U.S. national team immediately turns its focus to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where it begins its defense of its North and Central American title on July 4.
There will be a few familiar faces on the squad, as coach Bob Bradley is including Charlie Davies, Freddy Adu, Heath Pearce and Luis Robles from the Confederations Cup roster for the Gold Cup. Granted, only Davies saw any time in the Confed Cup, and Bradley has called up a comparatively inexperienced "B" team for this tournament, so the star quality of this squad may be somewhat diminished.
On the other hand, it's not that far behind -- and the players involved are mostly young and hungry to prove themselves to Bradley. After all, it was their last Gold Cup title in 2007 that sent the U.S. to the Confederations Cup in the first place. But though the team will be battling to hold the regional title, the competition is in many ways an audition for the World Cup.
"Guys have a chance to show well for themselves," said striker Brian Ching, the veteran of the group. The 31-year-old is returning to international play in the Gold Cup after an injury kept him from joining U.S. roster for the Confederations Cup. Ching noted that his Houston Dynamo teammate Stuart Holden, 23, who also was named to the Gold Cup roster, has had similar poor luck with the senior national team.
"If Stu hadn't gotten injured in January camp, he probably would have played vs. Sweden," said Ching (Holden has yet to receive his first senior national-team cap). Instead, it was Sacha Kljestan who had the breakout match in that friendly five months ago.
Holden is slighter and swifter than Kljestan, but perhaps more importantly, he has been having as excellent a season in Major League Soccer as Kljestan has had a forgettable one. Called on by Houston to take on the role the skilled Dwayne De Rosario once played, Holden admitted to being a bit overwhelmed as the season began.
"At the start of the year, there were high expectations, expectations that I was willing to take on," Holden said. "It was a little bit of added pressure and it took me a couple of games to get comfortable in there with Rico [Clark] and with what exactly my role was."
It's fair to say that Holden has ascended that steep learning curve rather well so far, as he has been a key player in driving Houston to the top of the MLS standings. His talents and technical abilities were always considerable. Yet with more game experience, Holden's decisions have improved, and he has honed his game tactics. "The team's been playing well, which has made it easier for me and given me more confidence," he said.
Ching believes Holden is ready to showcase his abilities on the international stage. "He's a good kid who knows what he's doing," said Ching. "I don't have to tell him anything."
At first glance, the teams the U.S. will face in the Gold Cup seem like a huge comedown after tangling with the likes of Italy, Spain and Brazil. The Americans open group-stage play against the tiny island nation of Grenada, for example. Yet the competition is not as easy as the casual fan might imagine.
In the first place, the U.S. will be in the unenviable position of having to force the issue during the matches. That means its opponents consider it to be the Brazil of CONCACAF and likely will plan a defensive game that depends on counterattacking chances. Many of these countries, though small, love the sport fiercely and are capable of some considerable skill.
It was only in '05 that Panama beat guest team Colombia and advanced to the Gold Cup final vs. the U.S. The upstart Panamanians pushed the Americans -- though neither side could manage a goal -- all the way to penalty kicks, where the U.S. finally prevailed.
Holden acknowledged that after the Confederations Cup performance by the U.S., the bar has been set higher for the team, no matter the turnover in the roster.
"With people seeing results on a big stage in a big competition, it's spreading," said Holden. "There's going to be some big expectations on us in the Gold Cup. People may say it's a weaker lineup, but I don't look at it that way. Hopefully, we win."
Andrea Canales is chief editor of Goal.com North America.