Bruce Arena has a rather interesting task ahead of him in July. He was hired to effectively guide the United States back from the brink of a poor start to World Cup qualifying and with eight points in the USMNT’s last four games, it appears the Americans once again control their own destiny for Russia 2018.
Which is why the upcoming Gold Cup presents a unique problem and solution for Arena as he relies on veteran players in qualifying. Arena didn’t have the luxury of bringing in a ton of youth and non-international veterans for the qualifying cycle as he had to stabilize the USA’s dreadful 0-2 start. Now, Arena has a chance to work in a few key players from the qualifying team as well as take a serious look at several MLS veterans and fringe players.
Winning the Gold Cup will give someone one of two possible berths in the CONCACAF Cup which determines the region’s spot in the Confederations Cup. Mexico just finished fourth in the 2017 edition last week, making the knockout stages but falling to Germany in the semis and Portugal in the consolation game. The USA has not appeared in the previous two editions of the Confed Cup since their run to the 2009 Final and a 3-2 loss to Brazil. A return to this tournament was a focal point under Jurgen Klinsmann back in 2015 and it should also be a priority for the USSF regardless of if Arena is around to coach the team in Qatar 2021/22.
While winning the Gold Cup will help achieve the goal of returning to the Confed Cup, in the short term, Arena needs to see how many players from his tournament squad can or will make the jump to his qualifying squad when the US hosts Costa Rica in September. New England Revolution teammates Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe are two players who have two different cases to make the qualifying roster for Bruce Arena.
Juan Agudelo can play both striker or winger but would be fighting for a spot as the fourth striker on the USMNT qualifying roster. Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey are likely going to be locks for Bruce Arena but it’s not inconceivable for Agudelo to impress or catch fire in MLS and keep his name in the conversation for that last true attacker spot. Other players who would likely be mentioned for this spot could be Dom Dwyer, Jordan Morris, and Chris Wondolowski.
Kelyn Rowe has a more specialized skill set, or rather, it’s a lack of specialization that makes him valuable. Rowe can effectively play anywhere in the midfield - holding, attacking, central, box-to-box, wide/winger - and fullback in a pinch. With Graham Zusi currently occupying the utility fullback/midfielder role and backup right back it would seem unlikely that Rowe or Cristian Roldan would dislodge the SKC veteran from the qualifying roster. However, could another midfielder beat out a player like Paul Arriola who started at Estadio Azteca last month? We’ll see, but a good Gold Cup outing will, at the very least, ensure both Rowe and Agudelo a January/Winter Camp call up in the MLS offseason.
But what about the rest of the USA roster?
Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid
I’m not going to lie, I’m very disappointed that Ethan Horvath isn’t on this tournament roster. I think he’s the starter of the future and while I have no problem having Johnson and Hamid battle it out for the backup spots I think having Guzan on the roster, and likely starting, is taking away valuable minutes from the goalkeepers of the future.
That being said, this is a good group. Both Johnson and Hamid have long thought to have been international caliber and Hamid in particular has been hampered by injuries. Both MLS veterans could stake a claim to the 3rd keeper spot currently locked down by Nick Rimando. Throw in Jesse Gonzalez from FC Dallas, Zach Steffan and Cody Cropper and there’s still a lot of depth for the US at goalkeeper for Arena and the USSF to tap into for the next cycle.
LB: Jorge Villafana, Justin Morrow / CB: Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Matt Hedges, Matt Miazga / RB: Graham Zusi, Eric Lichaj
I don’t know how much they’ll play, but between Morrow, Hedges and Lichaj, I’m not sure there are three more deserving defenders in the pool that deserve this call up. Morrow has been crushing it as a wingback for Toronto FC, Lichaj has been in international purgatory despite captaining Nottingham Forest in England and Hedges is one of the guys who will likely make the jump next cycle to national team regular.
But the main person here is probably Villafana, because he’s been really good for the US lately and this is his chance to absolutely solidify the starting left back job for the rest of the year and probably into 2018. Nostalgic me does want to see Gonzalez and Besler again, at least against Panama, before the Matt-Matt centerback pairing gets a look against Nicaragua or Martinique.
DM: Kellyn Acosta, Dax McCarty / CM: Kelyn Rowe, Cristian Roldan, Alejandro Bedoya / RM: Joe Corona, Paul Arriola / LM: Chris Pontius, Gyasi Zardes
This group of midfielders really is begging to play a 4-2-3-1 mainly because it can put Dax and Acosta as the two holders and let them run the show in the middle. I don’t know who the CAM would be but between Rowe, Bedoya, Coroa, Roldan, etc., I think the USA can be effective with one striker and two winger types on the outside.
There’s also an opportunity to just play a flat 4-4-2 with any combination of midfielders in the middle or wide areas because several of these guys are kind of interchangeable. Like Villafana, this is a big chance for Acosta to stake his claim for the starting job next to Michael Bradley for the rest of qualifying. Role players like Bedoya and Arriola are also looking to shore up their spots on the roster while Corona, Rowe and Roldan are trying to breakthrough. I’d play Pontius over Zardes all day, every day, but Gyasi being the younger player it’s very believable to think he’ll get the nod for serious minutes under Bruce this tournament.
Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer, Jordan Morris
You can almost classify this list as “The Battle for the 4th Striker Spot” for the USMNT. Jordan Morris was on the roster for the last two qualifiers but didn’t make an appearance. Dom Dwyer currently has a 100% strike rate as an international player and Juan Agudelo would be a great contributor on any roster for the USA.
That being said, we’ve seen Dwyer operate as a lone striker and at some point I think we’ll see Agudelo and Morris as a partnership in the group stage. All three of these players want to make an impression but it’s also where and how on the field that could be the most important. The USMNT already has Jozy, Wood and Duece as primary options, it would be nice to keep all three of these guys in the fold should injuries or MLS Playoffs keep anyone from international duty later in the year.
PROJECTED USMNT LINEUPS
FIRST XI (4-2-3-1) - Guzan; Villafana, Besler, Gonzalez, Zusi; Acosta, McCarty; Zardes, Rowe, Arriola; Dwyer
SECOND XI (4-4-2) - Johnson/Hamid; Lichaj, Hedges, Miazga, Morrow; Pontius, Bedoya, Roldan, Corona; Agudelo, Morris
I do not love every part about these lineups. I would much rather see Morrow or Lichaj at right back over Graham Zusi but I suspect Arena wants him to get minutes there to back up DeAndre Yedlin. This is understandable despite the fact I want as many minutes for the new fullbacks because this is a tremendous position of need on the depth chart for the full senior team.
I would much rather have Zardes as a winger than a box-to-box midfielder in a flat 4-4-2 midfield so I have him on the first team. In theory, there’s a lot of options for the USA as far as combinations for the striker/winger part of the lineup so I’m not entirely worried about the exact composition. I want to see Rowe get minutes as a CAM, especially over Bedoya, but I also wouldn’t mind Roldan getting a serious look in the middle either.
The USA should be considered one of the favorites even with this roster. This is still a pretty deep team and with the ability to add up to six regulars from the senior team for the knockout stages, there’s no reason to think the USMNT shouldn’t be able to return to the Gold Cup Final.
The main goal for the US is World Cup qualifying, as it is for most of the region. However, this is the first step for the US in returning to the Confederations Cup, a tournament the team would benefit greatly from in 2021 before the World Cup in Qatar. For now, the US will benefit from getting extended looks at a few potential starters and fringe players who will surely be back in the winter training session.
We’ll have a detailed look at all three groups throughout the weekend as the Gold Cup begins, including a look at the US and the rest of Group B on Saturday as they begin their tournament schedule in Nashville, Tenn., against Panama.