USA's Gold Cup roster: Projecting Arena's 23, plus knockout round swaps

Tuesday June 20th, 2017

Bruce Arena is paid to coach only one team, but he’s had to build around five since taking the U.S. national team reins last November. There was the January camp group that played two friendlies (that’s usually an ad hoc roster), the short-handed team he fielded for two critical qualifiers in March and then the split squads that just faced Trinidad & Tobago and then Mexico three days apart.

Now Arena has a CONCACAF Gold Cup roster to name, and that’s going to be a new team as well. The Gold Cup played the year before a World Cup—and right in the middle of the Hexagonal—often has an improvisational feel. One team, Mexico in this case, is involved in the Confederations Cup. Others are focused on qualifying or rebuilding following early elimination. 

The USA typically has done well under those circumstances. Two years ago, Landon Donovan and Chris Wondolowski each scored five goals as the Americans claimed their fifth continental crown. In 2009, a ‘B’ team featuring only five players with more than 15 caps (and seven with none) made the final. And four years earlier, Arena won his second Gold Cup.

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Expectations are high in July as well, despite the fact that busy summers this year and next (presumably) have pushed Arena to leave his European stars behind. They’re taking a break before resuming preseason training. Instead, the manager will rely on a domestic talent pool that’s probably deeper than ever, along with a player or two based abroad he hasn’t had a chance to see.

But the conflicting club schedule isn’t the only wrinkle. Once again, CONCACAF will allow Gold Cup teams to swap out up to six players following the group stage with replacements named on a preliminary, 40-man roster. It’s tough on smaller nations that lack genuine depth, but it gives Arena some enticing options as the tournament’s roster deadline approaches. He’ll reveal his team on Sunday.

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A less challenging group-stage schedule that features Panama (July 8), Martinique (July 12) and Nicaragua (July 15) gives Arena the chance to hand the keys over to some younger/less internationally experienced players who can begin making their case for World Cup inclusion. Then once the Gold Cup’s knockout rounds begin, he can call in some big-name reinforcements for a run at redemption following a fourth-place finish in 2015.

“I think we will have a good group of players coming in with a nice blend of some experienced players and some less experienced,” Arena said in a recent U.S. Soccer Q&A. “They’re going to have an opportunity to show what they’re about, and I think that part is exciting. Anytime you’re in the midst of World Cup qualifying and very close to not only qualifying, but being at a World Cup a year later, you have to have a competitive environment, and these players will push to positions themselves to be a big part of things moving forward.”

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Here’s a look at the 40-man preliminary roster, along with who’s likely to make the 23-man team announced Sunday and who might be called up following the group stage.

Goalkeepers 

Joe Bendik (Orlando City), Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas), Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Sean Johnson (New York City FC).

Gold Cup: Gonzalez, Guzan, Hamid.

Potential swaps: None, barring a fiasco.

There still is no successor to Howard and Guzan and although that’s not likely going to be a problem Arena has to solve—the coach's contract expires after the World Cup—it’s an increasingly relevant issue in American soccer. This summer represents a nice opportunity to try out a couple new faces in net.

Arena has nothing to gain by overworking Howard. He's the current No. 1 and a known quantity. Guzan, meanwhile, is in an interesting situation. July will mark the start of his eligibility to play for Atlanta, and although it might make sense to give him a seamless start with his new club, Arena also may not want to leave his No. 2 out of international action for too long. He told SI.com recently that he anticipates bringing in Guzan. He'll almost certainly start, and he'll be available to mentor a pair of less experienced teammates.

One should be Hamid, who's the most spectacular goalkeeper in MLS and deserves a good chunk of the credit for D.C. United’s run of three straight playoff appearances. The 26-year-old also prone to the rare howler and has had brutal luck with a few injuries that have prevented him from accepting past call-ups. It’s time to see if he can perform in the tournament crucible.

More eyes, however, may be on Gonzalez. The 22-year-old FC Dallas goalie has played for Mexico—his parents’ homeland—at the junior level. But his decision to request a switch to the USA, which would bind him for the rest of his career, gave Arena the option to add him to the 40-man team. The paperwork has been filed with FIFA and if it’s approved in time, Gonzalez should get his shot.

Defenders

Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Greg Garza (Atlanta United), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Jonathan Spector (Orlando City), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City).

Gold Cup: Besler, Birnbaum, Garza, Hedges, Lichaj, Miazga, Morrow, Spector.

Potential swaps: Gonzalez, Zusi (for Miazga, Lichaj).

Miazga and Lichaj play in Europe, but this represents the first real chance Arena will have to look at either. Miazga is a young center back with potential and Lichaj is a veteran right back who deserves another international invitation after a strong season at Forest.

The USA has considerable depth at center back. Hedges may make a run at a World Cup spot and might do well paired with the veteran Besler. Birnbaum is a potent weapon on set pieces and is due for another look, although maybe D.C. coach Ben Olsen can convince his former manager not to take both Hamid and a starting central defender. Either way, Gonzalez could use a break with Pachuca’s preseason fast approaching. He then could enter service if a stronger, more seasoned spine is required in the quarterfinals and beyond. Liga MX teams will be dealing with plenty of Gold Cup absences after El Tri took most of its European players to the Confederations Cup.

Morrow has done well in TFC’s 3-5-2 and is a player worth looking at if Arena continues to work on variations of the formation he used in Mexico City. Spector and Garza are veteran outside backs more than capable of getting the job done against CONCACAF opposition, and Zusi would be an experienced and versatile addition for the knockouts.

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Midfielders 

Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Tommy McNamara (New York City FC), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Kenny Saief (KAA Gent), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy).

Gold Cup: Acosta, Arriola, Bedoya, Corona, McCarty, Nagbe, Roldan, Zardes.

Potential swaps: Bradley (for McCarty).

As much fun as it might be to watch Pulisic tear up Martinique, his time is best spent on a break before returning to Dortmund. Instead, Arena has the chance to take a long look at the future of the American midfield during the group stage. It’ll be fascinating to see Acosta, Nagbe and Arriola run the show, with the likes of Zardes or Corona providing an attacking spark if needed.

Roldan has proven himself with the MLS champion Sounders and is ready for a national team chance, while McCarty continues to impress in Chicago and warrants more time in a U.S. jersey. Either can shore up central midfield if Acosta or Nagbe plays higher. Bedoya will serve as a veteran leader and linchpin.

Saief was born in Florida but grew up in Israel, which he’s represented multiple times at the junior level. His effort to switch to the USA is underway, however, although he’s probably not as far along in the process as Gonzalez. If it does come through in time, however, he may get called in over Corona.

It makes sense for Bradley to stay with Toronto through the Canadian Championship final and then join the national team in time for the quarters.

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Forwards

Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), C.J. Sapong (Philadelphia Union), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes).

Gold Cup: Agudelo, Dwyer, Morris, Wondolowski.

Potential swaps: Altidore, Dempsey (for Agudelo, Wondolowski).

Morris has hit a bit of a sophomore slump—he has only two MLS goals this year—and might get himself back on track with a vote of confidence from Arena and a brief change of scenery. Dwyer is eligible now that he’s secured American citizenship. He’s 26, so the Gold Cup probably is his best chance to establish himself as a national team option before the World Cup.

Agudelo has quietly scored seven goals this season for the Revs—that ties his career high—and continues to tantalize with his skill. Wondolowski is a worthwhile presence to have around a younger team and should have little trouble sniffing out chances against the Americans’ group-stage opponents.

When the big games come around, Arena can bring in the big guns. The national team scoring record and another Gold Cup title are up for grabs.

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