A 1-1 draw with Panama isn’t quite the result that American fans hoped or expected in the opening round of the Gold Cup. But it’s not the first time in recent memory fans have been left disappointed.
Back in 2015, the USMNT went home empty handed, as Jamaica defeated the U.S. Men’s National Team in the Gold Cup semifinals. So this time around, many expected head coach Bruce Arena to bring out the big names. Who do we need on our squad to win this tournament for the sixth time, and first time since 2013? Obviously, Clint Dempsey will lead the attacking line with Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic.
Wait…they’re not on the 23-man roster? So, you are telling me that Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer, and Jordan Morris—who have a total of 38 caps between them—are our forwards?
Well… OK, I guess.
But surely with that inexperience in front of goal, we will have a veteran midfield core anchored by Captain America himself, Michael Bradley… right? That has to be what Head Coach Bruce Arena is thinking!
Instead we have Kenny Saief, Cristian Roldan, and Kelyn Rowe making their United States debuts. Also in the midfield is Alejandro Bedoya, who is the heaviest capped player in the squad (60), along with Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Joe Corona, and Gyasi Zardes (the dude who has a knack for rocking some great soccer haircuts). The roster, filled with inexperienced and second-string players, has a lot of soccer fans scratching their heads.
The Gold Cup is a tournament that does not yield the same zeal as The Copa America or the European Championships, but it is a great appetizer for the subsequent World Cup. While it may lack international prestige, Gold Cup helps showcase the growing talent and rivalries within CONCACAF and serves as a “dress rehearsal” for players looking to get some experience under their belts before the World Cup. Which brings us back to the USMNT.
What does this 80/20 inexperience/veteran roster say about Bruce Arena’s approach to the Gold Cup? What are the priorities heading into the first match against Panama on July 8th? Are we a good enough footballing country—currently ranked 23rd according to FIFA—to field this type of 23-man roster, and still expect results?
By leaving off America’s marquee names, Arena is using a seemingly great methodology to develop young players to prepare them for the future. Countries like Germany, Spain, and Brazil—who are perennially ranked in the top ten—are often successful at cultivating youth into world-class superstars. If the United States are to compete with the likes of those nations, and become consistent threats in Copa Americas and World Cups, then perhaps it makes sense to leave our “stars” at home for the Gold Cup, at least for the group stage, to identify and then invest in building the talent of newcomers
Yes, the Gold Cup is formatted in a way that allows countries to make alterations to their squads after the group stages and before the knockout stages. The opportunity is knocking for lightly-capped players and those making their national debuts. This year’s Gold Cup will be a litmus test to analyze who might become assets for the Stars and Stripes when World Cup qualifiers continue later in the summer.
Without question, when we play Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena on September 1st, the team sheet will have more familiar names on it. As for our Gold Cup campaign, it will be intriguing to see if and who—of the new, young players—takes advantage of their opportunity. So far, Dwyer has made a strong case for himself, having netted two goals in his first two games. But there are still a lot of games to be played and a lot of experienced players ready to defend their spot on the team.
And since Bruce Arena is going with the experimental route this time, I am curious if he saw Mitch Hildebrandt, the FC Cincinnati goalkeeper, put on a show last week…