On the face, the task for the U.S. national team is simple: Start off defense of your Gold Cup title with a Fourth of July match in Seattle against one of the smallest nations in CONCACAF. Except that things work differently in CONCACAF, and though the days of guest competitors from other confederations and the wrong national anthems being played are things of the past, hopefully, just a few days before the tournament began came news of a curious development.
The USA meets Grenada on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, TeleFutura) at Qwest Field with a greatly revamped roster from the squad that finished second in the Confederations Cup, though seven of those players have been added to the 23-man roster submitted last week, as per an announcement that following discussions between CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer, CONCACAF decided that any nation competing in a Gold Cup played right after a Confederations Cup would be permitted to select game-day rosters of 18 from 30 players, not the standard 23.
"It's a larger roster of players to select from," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati in regards to the roster wrinkle. "We're not going to be able to dress more than 18. All of those things are the same. It may well end up being the case that, in fact, depending on how many games we play in the tournament that Bob [Bradley] doesn't play more than 23 players throughout. That's going to be up to him. So we don't view it as a big competitive advantage."
Only time will tell if the seven added players actually make an appearance, but the scheduling may facilitate their introduction. The USA finishes group play July 11 and then has a week off before the quarterfinals commence, leaving plenty of time to see if injured players have time to heal or reinforcements should be summoned. It will play three games in eight days during the first round.
"The games come quickly," said U.S. coach Bradley. "Obviously, this time of year in the United States in some cities it's very warm. There's a need to rotate players and then, what you hope is that as you play through the first round and into the quarterfinals, certain things start to take hold so that you have a very good idea as to your best team going into the latter part of the tournament."
The "competitive" aspect of the Gold Cup is also lessened somewhat by the fact that unlike the 2007 competition won by the USA, which earned it the CONCACAF slot in the just-played Confederations Cup, the 2009 tournament does not entail an automatic berth to the next Confederations Cup. That slot will be earned in a subsequent Gold Cup.
Setting aside the occasional quirks of this competition -- which this year will include a staggering total of 13 venues, some of which are hosting Gold Cup matches for the first time, and the withdrawal of Cuba, which has been replaced by Haiti -- it is renowned for dramatic games and tough matches against underrated teams.
Two years ago, before it rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat Mexico, 2-1, in the final, the USA barely scraped past a very scrappy Canadian team in the semifinals. Mexico's semifinal opponent, Guadeloupe, had upset Honduras in the quarters and beaten Canada in group play.
In 2005, the surprising Panamanians reached the final by beating guest competitors South Africa and Colombia in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. The Americans needed overtime to beat Honduras in the semis, and squeaked past Panama on penalties following a 0-0 tie.
Brian Ching and Michael Parkhurst are the only returnees from the 23-man squad that won the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Returnees from the 2005 championship team are Steve Cherundolo, Jimmy Conrad and Santino Quaranta.
No such drama is expected from Grenada, though midfielder Shalrie Joseph is among the MLS elite. Among the seven U.S. players seeking their first caps is New England teammate Jay Heaps, who is one of 15 MLS players on the roster of 23.
Only twice before, five years ago in the second round of 2006 World Cup qualifying, has the USA played Grenada. It won, 3-0, in Columbus and took the away leg, 3-2, in St. George's.
As the Confederations Cup showed, there are still 2010 World Cup spots to be won or lost. Moving up the ladder in South Africa were Jay DeMerit, Ricardo Clark, Charlie Davies and Jonathan Spector; sliding down the list were DaMarcus Beasley and Sacha Kljestan. While the Gold Cup competition won't be as stiff, for the most part, it's a chance -- maybe the last one for some players -- to get a serious look and prove their value in a tournament the USA has won four times, and can pass Mexico by winning it for the third straight time.
"We know that, at times, there are many different factors that get considered when putting a roster together," Bradley said. "But once we are together, our focus is to go about our business and the way we play and this is an important tournament -- the championship of our confederation. We are excited about defending our title."