It’s somewhat strange to consider a continental championship as anything but an end in itself. It’s one of only two traditional titles a national team can win, and it’s the most realistic for the majority of them.
Yet the CONCACAF Gold Cup exists in its own gray area. Because the 41-country confederation is so top heavy (no Central American or Caribbean team has lifted the trophy since the competition kicked off in 1991), and because the Gold Cup is contested every two years, winning it is neither everything nor the only thing for the region’s primary powers. Mexico (seven) and the USA (five) have claimed 12 of the 13 titles. They’ve each won recently, and they’ll each do so again. Trip up or fall flat in a given year, and there’s another chance right around the corner.
So for El Tri and the Americans, the Gold Cup also is a means. The players on a particular tournament roster obviously do everything they can to win. A gold medal is a gold medal. But many also may have an eye on what’s next. The Gold Cup often is part of a cycle rather than the end of one. And because of its timing and frequency, U.S. and Mexico managers have nudged it down the pecking order on some occasions or used it to evaluate newer players on others.
For reigning champ Mexico, the Gold Cup that begins July 7 is of secondary importance. The Confederations Cup was this summer’s big prize and its top players will rest after contesting the bronze-medal game in Russia.
For the USA, this Gold Cup is both a means and an end. The fourth-place finish in 2015 was an embarrassment that can’t be consigned to history quickly enough. But of equal importance is the continuing development of a pool and program that Bruce Arena took over just seven months ago.
World Cup qualification still isn’t a sure thing, so sapping the strength of the veterans who must see out that process didn’t make much sense. On the other end of the roster, there are less experienced players who either didn’t get much of a look under former coach Jurgen Klinsmann or who are just now coming of age. With a year remaining until the World Cup begins, it’s time to start figuring out who might make the grade.
“We want to continue to build on what we started in January and improve the program,” Arena said when announcing his 23-man tournament team. “Hopefully we find other players that can compete for spots for the [qualifying] camps in September and October, and then players that will continue to move forward and can possibly envision being part of our team in Russia in 2018.”
The Americans training this week in preparation for a Saturday friendly against Ghana in East Hartford, Connecticut, know what’s around the corner, and they know the ideal way to test tournament readiness is with a tournament. A good Gold Cup showing could bring two rewards.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity for all of us,” New England Revolution forward Juan Agudelo told reporters in Nashville, where the U.S. is practicing—and where it begins the Gold Cup against Panama on July 8. “You don’t know when you’ll have another chance like this in a major tournament before a World Cup.”
Agudelo is among the current campers who needs a good showing over the next few weeks in order to ensure he’s in frame for additional looks. Agudelo has had prior chances in a USA jersey (he’s been capped 23 times) but still hasn’t established himself as a regular international. The 24-year-old old forward is exceptionally skillful but lacks consistency, and the scrap for chances behind him is getting fiercer.
But he’s far from the only one in that position. Agudelo has U.S. teammates who are running out of chances and others whose form is in question. And then there are those who play roles where there’s loads of competition. For them, this Gold Cup is as much about the next 12 months as it is the next four weeks.
Thee’s plenty of precedent. Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley did enough at the 2002 tournament to convince Arena they were ready for the rigors of a World Cup. Three years later, 22-year-old Clint Dempsey made his tournament debut at the ’05 Gold Cup and wound up starting the final. He hasn’t missed a World Cup since. Jimmy Conrad and Oguchi Onyewu also began making their World Cup case in ’05. And Stu Holden was called up to the ‘B’ team that contested the ’09 Gold Cup without a cap. He was in South Africa a year later.
Who might follow in their footsteps? Some younger/newer players like FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta or Santos Laguna fullback Jorge Villafaña already have proven themselves to Arena and should remain in frame this fall. The likes of Cristian Roldan, Kenny Saief and Matt Miazga are basically brand new. Even if things go awry in July, they’ve got leeway and time to put themselves back in contention down the road. But there are those in between—those who are on the edge or falling toward it.
Here’s a look at five men for whom the stakes are highest as the USA aims looks to add to its five CONCACAF championships.
F Dom Dwyer, Sporting Kansas City
The path from a dead end in his native England and then a second chance at a Texas junior college has been a long one for Dwyer, but he’s passed every test along the way. He’s now a Sporting Kansas City star, an MLS Cup champ and among the most consistent scorers in MLS. He has five in 15 games this season.
Dwyer has never played international soccer, however, at any level. So his ability to adapt to the challenges it presents—integrating with new teammates and embracing unfamiliar tactics, overcoming packed-in CONCACAF defenses and inscrutable CONCACAF officiating, etc.—will be tested. He’s 26 and likely has become the player he’s going to be. That certainly works for SKC. But thanks to a deeper forward pool than the USA has had in years, Arena has no reason to wait around during a World Cup year if Dwyer struggles. There’s no obvious reason to believe he will. His relentless work off the ball and bravery in the penalty area should serve him well. But this very well could be Dwyer’s one genuine chance to show he can bring those qualities to a new group and competitive environment. He’s got everything to play for next month.
GK Bill Hamid, D.C. United
At his best, he’s the most spectacular goalkeeper in MLS and early on, he looked like a worthy heir to the line that now ends with Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. But the problem is that Hamid often has not been at his best. One issue is that mistakes happen when you face more shots than any any of your peers. But more importantly, untimely injuries have robbed Hamid of a couple opportunities to make his case. Nick Rimando has been an easy and obvious pick from MLS in the past, and Hamid has never generated the momentum required to unseat the Real Salt Lake veteran. Hamid, the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2014, has been forced to wait. He’s now 26 and still has only two caps—the most recent coming in late 2014.
Jesse Gonzalez’s switch from Mexico to the USA was approved early Thursday. The FC Dallas goalie now occupies the “next” position Hamid held several years ago. Seattle Sounders MLS Cup hero Stefan Frei just received his American citizenship. Guzan is still only 32 and very well may stick around for another cycle, and there are always American goalies coming through in MLS, from fellow camper Sean Johnson to Orlando City’s Joe Bendik, who was on the preliminary roster. Hamid finally has his chance, and he must make the most of it.
D Matt Hedges, FC Dallas
The 2016 MLS Defender of the Year had a chance to showcase his skills to Arena at the January camp, but a knee injury brought the opportunity to an abrupt end. Since then, a half-hour of reserve duty in this month’s friendly against Venezuela marks his only international contribution.
There’s depth at center back. The four World Cup veterans at the position—Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez (they’re at the Gold Cup), Geoff Cameron and John Brooks (they’re not)—will be around next summer as well. Miazga, Steve Birnbaum and Walker Zimmerman have been called up previously and prospects like Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown are waiting in the wings. It’s a loaded position.
Hedges is good enough to make a run at a World Cup spot. He has no real weaknesses, is strong in the air and with his feet and he’s been in consistently excellent form for FCD. But he faces a lot of competition, and his bid to go to Russia will have to start with the overhauling of at least one World Cup veteran. He won’t want to wait until the next January camp to begin making his case.
D Eric Lichaj, Nottingham Forest
Despite playing consistently in England for Nottingham Forest, Lichaj never really found the favor of Klinsmann. The fullback has Gold Cup experience and was a starter for Bob Bradley’s USA through the knockout rounds off the 2011 tournament. But his brief stint as a substitute in a May 2016 friendly against Puerto Rico represent his only national team minutes in the past three and a half years.
It had appeared as though Villafaña (left) and DeAndre Yedlin (right) had emerged as Arena’s first-choice backs this spring. But behind them, there’s enough room on the depth chart that Graham Zusi has made headway as a right back and the 35-year-old Beasley remains a good option on the left. Beyond that, it’s been hit or miss for the likes of Timmy Chandler, Greg Garza and others.
Lichaj is a 28-year-old pro who was Forest’s player of the season in 2016-17. He typically plays on the right for the Championship club but can handle himself on the left as well—that versatility is something Arena might find appealing. He’s energetic and a good tackler and he’s comfortable further up the field. With his experience and the USA’s issues at outside back in recent years, it’s a puzzle why Lichaj hasn’t gotten more of an opportunity. Perhaps the reason will emerge at the Gold Cup. Or perhaps he’ll demonstrate that overlooking a seasoned pro in a strong league, second division or not, was a mistake.
“I’m just going to work my hardest. It’s an opportunity for everybody in this squad to stake their claim for a World Cup spot in a year’s time,” Lichaj told reporters in Nashville. “I’m working toward that goal.”
F Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders
The Seattle Sounders product was making the transition to pro ball look relatively easy by the end of last season. But this year, the striker has come back to Earth. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer has tried just about everything—deploying Morris up front or out wide in a variety of formations in with a variety of partners. But the 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year hasn’t found his footing, and he has only two goals (and no assists) in 16 league matches this season.
It soon may get to the point where Arena has difficulty rationalizing Morris’s inclusion based on his club form, even though that form isn't entirely the player's fault. His inconsistent positioning and deferral to Dempsey is an issue, as is the Sounders' overall lack of sustained attacking chemistry. In addition, Morris is overdue for a break and may just be worn down. But he's not going to get that rest now, so the best thing for him would be to find a groove, some confidence or a bit of mojo under Arena's watch.
With Dwyer and Gyasi Zardes in camp, and with Jozy Altidore, Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski among the possible knockout-round replacements, competition for minutes and chances is going to toughen. Morris has to show Arena something to justify additional investment after the group stage, and perhaps beyond.