The CONCACAF Gold Cup is full of wrinkles, none more odd than allowing roster changes after the group stage of the 12-team regional competition.
U.S. Coach Bruce Arena took full advantage of the rule Sunday, replacing the maximum six players and bolstering the experience level of a largely unseasoned squad that struggled at times in a weak quartet.
Five arrivals seem certain of starting in Wednesday’s quarterfinal in Philadelphia against El Salvador: goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielders Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe, and forwards Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
The other call-up, Jesse Gonzalez, will serve as the third-choice goalkeeper. The 22-year-old dual national, from MLS’s FC Dallas, recently became eligible to play for the United States after serving on Mexico’s junior teams.
The newcomers replaced goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Sean Johnson; midfielders Alejandro Bedoya, Kelyn Rowe and Cristian Roldan; and forward Dom Dwyer.
“The players leaving all made a good impression,” Arena said, “and I’m optimistic for their future with the national team program.”
The selection of the newcomers was done well in advance of Sunday’s announcement: Four quietly arrived Thursday in Cleveland, the site of the Group B finale Saturday against Nicaragua, and trained with the group Friday.
Three outgoing players knew before the tournament began they would leave this weekend.
Guzan, Howard’s backup for years, is in the process of joining a new club, Atlanta United, after nine years in England. Bedoya, who fueled the 3-0 victory over Nicaragua, was to rejoin his wife for the birth of their second child. And with Gonzalez cleared by FIFA, Johnson was slated to rejoin New York City FC.
The others – all of whom were in their first U.S. camp – did not know until after Saturday’s match, a result that clinched first place. Roldan (Seattle Sounders) was not expected to stay, but Dwyer and Rowe were.
New to the team since gaining citizenship in the spring, the British-born Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City) scored in each of his first two international matches (friendly vs. Ghana, Gold Cup opener vs. Panama). He started Saturday but missed a penalty kick. In cutting Dwyer, Arena preferred Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris (two goals vs. Martinique).
Rowe (New England Revolution) was creative and smart on the left wing. He assisted Dwyer’s goal against Panama and scored the second goal against Nicaragua. But Arena’s addition of Nagbe, a left wing, and his trust in Gyasi Zardes, his former pupil with the Los Angeles Galaxy, left Rowe as the odd man out.
“All of the [decisions] were difficult because all of them did well,” Arena said. “Those are players we’re obviously going to continue to keep an eye on” ahead of World Cup qualifiers in September and October, and the World Cup next summer in Russia.
Howard, Bradley, Dempsey and Altidore have made a combined 486 international appearances; the latter three have totaled 110 goals. Nagbe (17 matches) has become a regular starter in World Cup qualifying.
Arena did not name those five to the initial 23-man roster because he wanted to provide rest from international soccer after the World Cup qualifiers in June and to test less experienced candidates in the Gold Cup group. (U.S. regulars based in Europe were allowed to skip the Gold Cup altogether.)
Everyone in camp except Johnson started at least one match. After Guzan started two games, D.C. United’s Bill Hamid was in the lineup Saturday and performed well. He will end up being the only goalkeeper to spend the entire month with Arena, a positive sign for his World Cup outlook.
“Group play was an opportunity for a lot of players to get a chance,” Arena said. “When you play so many less experienced and younger players together, it’s difficult. Probably the perfect way to do that is mix them in with more veteran players, but we wanted to give everyone an opportunity. They came through with passing grades.”
Updated U.S. roster
Goalkeepers: Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids).
Defenders: 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).
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Tijuana), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Joe Corona (Tijuana), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy).
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders).