There’s more at stake next month for the U.S national team than the continental championship. Coach Bruce Arena now has his eyes on two tournaments—this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and, thanks to the Americans’ improved qualifying form, next year’s World Cup.
He wants to win the former and should probably start planning for the latter. World Cup rosters, after all, take shape over time. It’s vital, however, that key members aren’t burned out when the World Cup kicks off, so Arena has left the vast majority of his European players off the 23-man Gold Cup team, which was unveiled on Sunday. They deserve a little rest before their clubs commence preseason training.
Conversely, there's often a handful of players who emerge from the periphery and make a late run at a World Cup roster spot. This Gold Cup, which the USA begins on July 8 against Panama, is the final major event before next summer’s big show, so it represents the final chance for less certain candidates to show their stuff in a tournament environment.
Arena has tried to find the right balance on his roster between playing to win and playing to improve. Knowing he can replace up to six athletes following the Gold Cup’s group stage, he’s also left a bunch of bigger MLS names off the initial team—opting to highlight those with something to prove. Meanwhile, men like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi and Brad Guzan, all with World Cup pedigree, will set the tone.
“It’s a good roster with a nice blend of experienced, veteran players and a good group of newcomers as well,” Arena said. “There’s good balance at every position. We can play a number of ways, and I think all these players have a desire to play for the U.S and will be working hard. It will be a competitive camp. They are going to be highly motivated, very coachable and they have an opportunity to make a statement.”
Regarding potential knockout-stage replacements—Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Darlington Nagbe are among those eligible and waiting in the wings—Arena said. “I will wait and see how the tournament develops before I make any of those decisions. We clearly have a number of players that we can consider bringing in and we will do that, but we want to see how we get through group play.”
U.S players began assembling in Nashville on Sunday (the final roster is due to CONCACAF on Tuesday) and they’ll train there for a few days before they head to Connecticut for the July 1 friendly against Ghana. Then it’s back to Tennessee to prepare for the Gold Cup opener against Panama at Nissan Stadium. It should be, by some distance, the Americans’ toughest match of the first round.
By then, Arena should have a handle on who’s Gold Cup ready. There are four national team newcomers—Dom Dwyer, Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe and Kenny Saief. There are 10 who’ll be attending their first camp under Arena and only 12 who’ve played a part in World Cup qualifying. The average number of senior caps, 16, is the second-lowest on a Gold Cup roster since 2000. Bob Bradley’s ’09 team averaged only nine and still got to the final, where it was routed by a full-strength Mexican side.
There isn’t an obvious starting lineup or tactical approach and that is exactly how Arena likes it, as a dynamic, unpredictable training camp is exactly what he is hoping for.
“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,” he said. “These players will push to position themselves to be a big part of things moving forward.”
Besler, Gonzalez, DaMarcus Beasley, Pablo Mastroeni, Jimmy Conrad, Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden are among those who parlayed Gold Cup success into a World Cup trip, so there’s likely a name or two on Arena’s list that will follow. But first, there’s the matter of making amends for a fourth-place finish two years ago and pursuing a sixth CONCACAF championship.
Here’s a closer look at the 23 men who will start the journey.
Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC)
Guzan is the obvious first-choice goalie, but that doesn’t mean he was an obvious pick. Arena had to decide between Tim Howard, who’s been in net for the recent qualifiers and might do well with a rest (MLS teams will take a two-week break during the Gold Cup’s group stage), and Guzan, who’s just starting with his new club. It appears overworking Howard is less palatable to Arena than forcing Atlanta United to wait a few more weeks for its new keeper.
Howard is on the 40-man list of players eligible to be called in as knockout-round replacements.
Hamid is an intriguing choice as one of the back-ups. He’s often been spectacular for D.C and regarded as one of the top goalies in MLS, having won the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2014, and yet he can only has two senior caps. That’s partially due to the strength at the top of the depth chart and partially due to some very untimely injuries. This is Hamid’s chance to finally insert himself into the race to be Howard’s successor.
FC Dallas’s Jesse Gonzalez didn’t make Arena’s list.
Gonzalez and Saief had applied to FIFA for a one-time switch in international allegiance to the USA but while Saief (from Israel) was approved, Gonzalez (from Mexico) continues to wait for the green light.
Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
There’s plenty of experience and depth in this group, starting with the 2014 World Cup center back pairing of Besler and Gonzalez. Hedges, 27, is starting his international career a bit late but is a tantalizing center back prospect and seems to be in frame to challenge for a World Cup spot if he continues on his current trajectory. Miazga, 21, is also ready for another look after helping Vitesse win the Dutch Cup.
Villafaña is an obvious choice to start at left back. He’s emerged this year as Arena’s preference, but Morrow is an interesting back-up option thanks to his comfort in the 3-5-2, a conservative variation of which was deployed by Arena in the qualifying draw in Mexico City.
Zusi’s transition to right back continues while Lichaj, who was Nottingham Forest’s player of the 2016-17 season, gets a long-awaited chance to jumpstart a USA career that never really found traction. He’s 28-years-old and has been in England since 2008 but still has only 11 caps.
Among the defenders eligible for knockout-round duty are Greg Garza, Jonathan Spector and Steve Birnbaum.
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Kenny Saief (KAA Gent), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
This Gold Cup should be Acosta’s time to shine. The 21-year-old has been a two-way force for Dallas and has done well in his first few appearances with the USA. He can play as a box-to-box connector or as a holder. Roldan was instrumental to Seattle’s 2016 title run and is a strong defensive midfield prospect, while McCarty’s value is evident—just look at the reversal in fortune experienced by his old club at Red Bull Arena and his new one in Chicago.
Bedoya is the most experienced player on the roster and should do well as an organizer and connector further up, while Arriola has shown flashes of attacking promise. Saief, who is already cap-tied, is unknown to this group, but he’s been a solid performer as a winger/attacking midfielder in Belgium and will get his first chance to play for the country of his birth next month. Zardes is well known to Arena from his days with LA and is an option out wide or up front.
“We were fortunate that Kenny just recently received his clearance from FIFA,” Arena said of Saief. “He plays on the left side of midfield, a position where we can use some help, and he’s a good left-footed player from what we’ve seen. It’ll be interesting to see him in camp to see how he fits in with our group.”
Corona and Rowe are likely there for depth while Bradley, Nagbe, Wil Trapp, Chris Pontius and Tommy McNamara are all potential replacements.
Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
With Altidore and Dempsey on the reserves list, the scoring load will fall to Morris, who’s started slow this season with the Sounders, and will partner with either Dwyer or Agudelo. Dwyer, 26, received his American citizenship in March and is among the most consistent finishers at MLS level. Agudelo hasn’t made much of an international impact but also he is too skilled to be ignored. He started brightly this season, scoring seven goals in 15 matches for the Revs.
“He’s a proven goal scorer, a hard worker and a left-footed striker which we’re a little short of as well,” Arena said of Dwyer, who has five goals in 15 MLS games this season. “He’s a very competitive guy, and I think he has a game that may fit in very well at the international level.”