From Matt Miazga to Kenny Saief an Eric Lichaj, the final 23-man squad has several players who could propel themselves onto the 2018 World Cup radar
The 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup may not seem like that important a tournament this time around, what with Mexico and the U.S. sending B teams and Costa Rica and Panama also resting some key veterans. As much as that may dilute the overall significance of this year’s installment, it remains a golden opportunity for some U.S. players to take their first steps toward a place at the 2018 World Cup.
The list of players who have gone from relative U.S. national team newcomers to World Cup participants after impressing at the Gold Cup is an impressive one. Dating back to DaMarcus Beasley, who shined at the 2002 Gold Cup before making that year’s World Cup at age 20, to Clint Dempsey’s jump from the 2005 Gold Cup to 2006 World Cup, Bruce Arena has a track record of using the tournament to mine for new contributors. The number of fresh faces on the 2017 U.S. Gold Cup roster shows Arena hasn’t changed his stance.
The Gold Cup roster isn’t just about new faces, but also about players trying to make the most of second chances. That includes the likes of Eric Lichaj, Joe Corona, Juan Agudelo and Gyasi Zardes, as well as goalkeepers Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, who have climbed their way back into the picture after enduring hardships following their initial national team experiences.
Here are some key takeaways from the U.S. Gold Cup roster announcement:
CENTER BACK BATTLE WILL BE FIERCE
To understand just how deep the center back position is for the U.S. these days, consider the fact that John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream are missing from the Gold Cup squad and Arena still has four very intriguing options in central defense to choose from.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are the veterans, and both are trying to work their way back up the depth chart after slipping. Gonzalez is right behind Brooks and Cameron in the pecking order, and should lead the defense at the Gold Cup. Besler has fallen behind Brooks and Ream among left center backs, and will be feeling the pressure from Matt Hedges as well.
Considering how much Arena talked up Hedges in past camps this year, you have to think he will give the FC Dallas defender a chance to start in at least one of the group stage matches.
Miazga is an interesting option because of his age (21), and the fact he’s coming off his first full season in Europe. He showed well playing on loan with Vitesse but will face stiff competition from a stable of more experienced center backs.
Brad Guzan should be the starter on this team, but the return of Hamid and Johnson to the fold is a meaningful moment. Both were seen as potential long-term options a few years back, before injuries began to keep Hamid away and bad form and a lack of playing time set Johnson back when he was with the Chicago Fire.
Now, Hamid is healthy and comes in playing some of the best soccer of his career. The same can be said for Johnson, who has become a more well-rounded goalkeeper since joining New York City FC. Tasked with handling and distributing the ball much more than before, Johnson has gained confidence and enters camp a significantly better player than the last time he was with the U.S.
And what of Jesse Gonzalez, who made headlines when it was reported he would file a change of association request with FIFA? Sources have confirmed to Goal that Gonzalez did, in fact, file for the one-time switch, and could be brought in for the knockout rounds.
Though he missed out on being chosen, Joe Bendik deserves mention for the outstanding season he is having at Orlando City. He has played well enough for a look, and should be considered come January if he can put together a full season at his current level.
WHO WILL BE THE CREATORS?
With no Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe or Clint Dempsey, this U.S. roster feels light on creativity, but Arena does have some midfielders who should be able to lead the attack against the level of competition awaiting in the group stage.
Kenny Saief could wind up taking on the playmaking duties, though he is more likely to contend for minutes on the full U.S. team as a left winger. The Gent midfielder is quick, skilled on the dribble and can shoot with either foot, though he is more adept at taking people on than delivering the killer pass.
If Arena deploys Saief wide, then he could turn to a player like Joe Corona or Paul Arriola in an attacking midfielder role. Corona played in a deeper-lying midfield role this past year for Club Tijuana, but he has experience playing in a more advanced position.
The roster is loaded with box-to-box midfielders, which could lead Arena to throw a combination of them together, with Kellyn Acosta, Dax McCarty and Alejandro Bedoya good options. Cristian Roldan and Kelyn Rowe are national team newcomers, but both have looked very sharp this season and could force their way into the conversation for minutes.
WHAT ROLE WILL ZARDES PLAY?
Remember when Gyasi Zardes was a fixture on the U.S. team? That wasn’t so long ago — only a year to be exact — but his return from a broken foot has been a slow one, and even though he has been back with the LA Galaxy for some time now, he has yet to return to his best form.
Arena knows Zardes well, having coached him with the Galaxy, and he should be patient with him as the 25-year-old tries to work his way back into the form that made him a regular under Jurgen Klinsmann. He is listed as a midfielder on the Gold Cup roster, but you have to think Arena won’t be afraid to give him a look as a forward, especially with only three strikers listed on the roster.
Then again, there is a good chance we will see a healthy amount of the 3-4-3 at the Gold Cup, which would give Zardes the opportunity to try and make a home for himself as a wide forward. He will have to play much better than he has shown for the Galaxy lately, though, if he’s going to play himself back into the full-team conversation come September.
RIGHT BACK WILL BE INTERESTING
Eric Lichaj has been on the outside looking in with the U.S. national team for years, but few American defenders have been starting consistently for longer than the Nottingham Forest fullback. Arena can use more fullbacks and Lichaj’s ability to play on the left and right should serve him well as he tries to get into Arena’s good graces.
Zusi has become a full-time right back for Sporting Kansas City, but he is still learning the position and should get his chance to start in a couple of the group stage matches. Arena likes his experience and ability to provide service from the right back spot, and Zusi also is a very good candidate for a right wing back role when needed.
Let’s not forget Arriola, who saw plenty of time as a right wing back for Club Tijuana this past season. Though not really suited to play as a right back in a four-man defense, Arriola has the speed and skill to be an effective wing back and just might see some run in that role this summer.