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With the release of the final 23-man roster for the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) Gold Cup, the intent is pretty obvious. Manager Gregg Berhalter has completely gone into experimentation mode in an attempt to find depth for the World Cup qualifiers next summer. Of the CONCACAF Nations League roster that he had won the title with last month, Berhalter only retained four players.
The lucky four are right-back Reggie Cannon, and midfielders Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget and Jackson Yueill. The rest of the roster is made up primarily of Major League Soccer (MLS) talents, some who are yet to even play a match for the U.S. at the senior level, and others who need this as a last impression. Since four seems to be the hot number, only four players in this batch play outside of the MLS.
Though it may not make sense to every USMNT fan who wants the Americans to win the Gold Cup, this move is the right call. By doing this Berhalter will allow these players to prove themselves not only to the coaching staff, but to other clubs seeking players during the current transfer window. If he can get even two or three players out of the MLS and on to squads in other countries to play more competitively, then that’s certainly a win.
Let’s dissect each level of this roster on what to look for heading into their first game on Sunday:
Even though Cannon was one of the four players kept for this Gold Cup run, he has nothing to prove and seems to be a certain lock for the squad at the World Cup qualifiers. The only reason for his retention is to probably allow him to play as an outside wing-back and push up into more attacking scenarios. He’s always been a trusty and lockdown right-back, but Berhalter needs to see how he fares in a possible five defender set that he’s been toying with.
Also Cannon is a perfect example of players using these cup matches as a springboard. His solid play in previous official matches helped him find his way from FC Dallas to Boavista in Portugal. There’s certainly other players on this roster who could do the same, such as center-back Miles Robinson.
Robinson honestly has the most to gain of the defenders selected. For Atlanta United he’s been a last stand defender for a few years and done well with it. He’s athletic enough to run with most if not all of the attackers he’ll face at the Gold Cup. If he can bang in a header and create some chances from the defensive half then he’ll certainly give the staff something to dwell on.
Some defenders, like James Sands and Donovan Pines, are making their presumed first ever appearances in the coming weeks, which provides a sense of excitement. On the other hand, a veteran like Walker Zimmerman will try and show Berhalter that he can do everything that longtime squad staple Tim Ream can do, and even sell himself to other clubs. He’s a player that has been stuck for his whole career in the MLS, but definitely has the abilities to play on a much higher stage.
Now that we’ve covered the defenders, let’s move on to the midfield:
Following suit with the trend of players who have been stuck in the MLS for the entirety of their career, we find Kellyn Acosta. Unlike Zimmerman who I feel had a bad hand dealt, Acosta has been stuck for a reason. He’s unreliable at times and not nearly as athletic as other midfield choices who will play the defensive-mid slot. Though Berhalter has praised his work ethic and will to become a better footballer, this will be his final audition for what should be a non-selection next summer.
The one player who is really fighting for his life is Lletget and it could be the main reason why he got to carry over. He’s on this squad to provide veteran leadership and stability in the middle, and possibly score some goals. In 24 international appearances he’s quietly netted seven goals, and if he continues to do so or sets up others to find the net, there’s a good shot he will be on the roster next summer.
The most interesting player to watch here in the midfield is Cristian Roldan. He’s been such a sound player (pun intended) for the Seattle Sounders. He’s made 184 appearances and scored 24 goals.
He’s been a bust in international play though, as he’s played 20 games for the National squad and has yet to score a single goal. If Roldan doesn’t net at least one in this Gold Cup, he can kiss his chances goodbye.
Now that we’ve covered the middle, let’s see what’s going on up front:
This section of the field will be the make or break for the Gold Cup. They have some players that have a ton of experience like Paul Arriola and Gyasi Zardes, who have combined for 91 games and 20 goals. Also you have young but rising talents in Daryl Dike and Nicholas Gioacchini, who have each played three times for the U.S. and netted at least one goal a piece.
Zardes always has a little bit of bias towards him because he played for Berhalter in Columbus for the Crew, but he isn’t technically gifted enough to play against world class talents.
Arriola is in the same boat in terms of talent but he has such a high motor and can run for the full 90 minutes, making him a commodity. In my opinion both of these players are not in consideration for a roster spot at the qualifiers, but are good enough to still compete for the Gold Cup as they have in years past.
Dike is without a doubt the most exciting player on this team and it’s not even close. He brings what looks to be a boatload of untapped potential to the table. His physical traits are an absolute gift, coming in at 6’1” and a resounding 220 lbs. It makes you wonder if he even chose the right kind of football.
Even with his size, Dike can run past defenders and then body them if need be. In reality he can become that elite talent that many Americans thought Jozy Altidore would become, but never really panned out. This stage should easily get him back to European grounds after a marvelous stint on loan with Barnsley, as he scored nine goals in 19 appearances.
Gioacchini and new face Matthew Hoppe are already playing overseas, at Caen and Schalke 04 respectively, but debuts in official matches are imperative. Gioacchini has already scored two goals in three games for the U.S. but since they were only friendlies, he’s not “cap-tied” yet (meaning he can still play for Italy or Jamaica based off FIFA rules). However, just one appearance for this 20 year-old in the Gold Cup will lock him in to play for the U.S. in the future.
For Hoppe, he’s another 20 year-old who has really grown into his own in the German Bundesliga. In just 22 caps he netted six goals to include a hat trick against Hoffenheim. He has poise and patience around goal for such a young player, and getting him locked in as well with an official cap will help set up a solid group of forwards going…forward.
Finally we arrive at the goalkeepers, but due to the selection process this is fairly simple. Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath are the definite one and two choices at the position, so Berhalter just needs to find a third for qualifiers. The reality is that of these goalies on the roster there’s not any new and exciting talent.
Brad Guzan is currently 36 years old, Sean Johnson just turned 32 a month ago and Matt Turner is 27. The move may be to play all of them in the group stage so they each get a start, and then just ride the hot hand. Turner probably has the most upside of the group but after watching how Horvath literally and figuratively saved the game against Mexico, it’s hard to insert any of these three above him.
Even though I agree with the move by Berhalter, there’s a couple things that I wanted to address.
Even though FC Dallas’s Jesús Ferreira just got healthy, he could have capitalized on this opportunity. He’s only played twice for the senior team and scored a double against Costa Rica. The Gold Cup would have been a prime time opportunity to showcase his abilities and get him out of MLS and onto a bigger club.
Also experimentation is good, but do it with the right pieces as well. Zardes should have never been on this roster as it should have been reserved for pieces like Sebastian Soto or Konrad de la Fuente. Those guys need the experience and to build chemistry because it’s very possible that they could be on the World Cup roster.
Getting them cap-tied should have been in the discussions, but so should the argument that their first official matches should not have been with the World Cup as the stakes. For instance, Soto has dual citizenship with the U.S. and Chile. Even though he’s played only with the U.S. in the past, and even declined invites from the Chileans, he can still change his mind until that official match debut.
Regardless of my thoughts, the U.S. should be able to cruise through the group stage with the toughest test coming against Canada. Once they arrive at the knockout stage we’ll really start to see what these players are made of. Maybe one of these young guns can become a hero and solidify the United States’ standing as the top squad in CONCACAF.