Analysis

The 5 players who could jump-start their USMNT careers with a great Gold Cup

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Gold Cup has been a springboard for some U.S. careers, and it could be for these players, too.

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Sometimes the Gold Cup is about winning a tournament. Sometimes it’s the secondary tournament in a summer of international soccer, which means it’s still important but for different reasons.

It’s about giving an opportunity to certain players who might not otherwise get the chance. With a few U.S. men’s national team regulars being kept on the sidelines – at least for the opening round, with potential changes made for the elimination stage – it’s fair to call this a moment that needs seizing for a few fringe U.S. internationals, and for a few players looking to climb the depth chart.

U.S. manager Bruce Arena on Sunday named his 23-man roster for the 2017 tournament. Here are five players who have the most to gain:

Juan Agudelo, forward

The New England Revolution striker always seems older than he is; he is just 24, still with plenty of professional years ahead. It’s just that he’s been part of the national team scene for so long, having debuted and scored when he was just 18 years old, shortly after the 2010 World Cup.

Talent and raw ability is the reason he has 23 caps; a lack of consistency is mostly why Agudelo doesn’t have more, despite now being into his 7th year in the mix. So, this tournament could be a make-or-break moment. It’s coming at a good time; he has seven goals for the Revs, already matching a career-high halfway through the season. With Dom Dwyer now eligible – and on the U.S. roster for the Gold Cup – plus younger guys in the pipeline, Agudelo needs to establish his place while he can.

Sean Johnson, goalkeeper

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time when Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were in their young 20s, getting regular call-ups as the presumed future of the national team. They were 2nd or 3rd on the roster, there for grooming and learning the game at a higher level. As time went by, Hamid kept getting those calls while Johnson fell behind.

A longtime figure in goal for the Chicago Fire, Johnson, now 28, recognized he had reached a career sticking point. So he made the move to NYCFC, where he is doing well now for Patrick Vieira’s team. He may be there only because Jesse Gonzalez is still in the process of changing his international eligibility from Mexico to the United States; only Arena knows. Either way, an opportunity is an opportunity.

Matt Hedges, defender

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The stars just haven’t aligned correctly in the past for the FC Dallas veteran center back and 2016 MLS Defender of the Year to catch on with the national team. And it’s still a bit of an uphill climb, considering this is the United States’ deepest position. But with four center backs named to this roster, and the top U.S. pair unlikely to be part of the elimination-round changes, this is Hedges’ chance to establish himself in the rotation.

Two of the other center backs named to the roster – Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler – have 39 caps each. Arena knows what he has in those two. At the other end, Matt Miazga is just 21 years old and still relatively inexperienced. It all adds up to this: Perhaps no one has as much to gain with a good tournament as Hedges.

Kelyn Rowe, midfielder

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In some ways, the New England Revolution midfielder had been the very picture of the U.S. developmental system at work. He worked his way through the United States Under-18 and Under-20 teams and participated in an Under-23 camp. But Rowe’s progress kind of stalled there; he has yet to earn a full U.S. cap.

Still, he was highly effective last year in New England and he’s been on top of things again in 2017, so maybe he can be a late bloomer internationally, something like teammate Lee Nguyen.

Rowe is best as a No. 10, but can also be a box-to-box guy. He could be a like-for-like change for the more established Kellyn Acosta, given the tight Gold Cup schedule. If Rowe can hold his own at international level, he would establish himself as a great person to have around; versatility is an asset, as Rowe can play multiple positions across midfield or even as a left back. He is one of four uncapped players on the 23-man roster.

Eric Lichaj, defender

Even with fullbacks in short supply, the Nottingham Forest defender hasn’t been seen in the early “Arena 2.0” rosters. So this is a big chance, Lichaj having apparently lapped Greg Garza, among others, along the U.S. depth chart. Left back is Jorge Villafana’s position, although 35-year-old DaMarcus Beasley still has something to say about it, apparently.

But Beasley isn’t on the Gold Cup roster, so this is Lichaj’s chance to re-establish himself in the player pool. It doesn’t hurt that he can play on either side, and the United States is also a bit thin at right back beyond DeAndre Yedlin.

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