Analysis

Plane missed? The Gold Cup looks like a lost opportunity for USMNT's fringe

USA TODAY Sports-Kim Klement

Did anyone use the Gold Cup to help their cause? Unfortunately, Russia 2018 looms.

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The question for Bruce Arena was fairly straightforward, and the U.S. men’s national team manager presumably understood exactly what was being asked:

Has anyone used the CONCACAF Gold Cup to elevate their place in the player pool, to do what Pablo Mastroeni did quite a few years back, or what Matt Besler did at the 2013 Gold Cup, turning a tournament opportunity into a launch pad and then going on to the World Cup?

What followed was a slightly rambling 30-45 seconds of what amounted to … “No.”

Oh, it was couched in some niceties about roster building and “more information” usefully gathered and such. But that was Arena being nice.

Coming into the Gold Cup, there were two kinds of U.S. players on the roster: guys further ahead in the pecking order, who are probably going to Russia next summer if the U.S. can get there, and guys who needed to punch through, who sought to rise above the roster clutter by proving themselves during the tournament.

Greg Garza, Matt Hedges, Eric Lichaj, Matt Miazga, Chris Pontius, Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris were in the latter category. You could probably add to this list: “Graham Zusi as a right back.” Kenny Saief, too. He got hurt and never got to make his Gold Cup case.

For some of those guys, the pressure is really on because this might be their only shot at a World Cup. Hedges is 27, Lichaj is 28 and Pontius is already 30.

All this presents a different kind of problem when it comes to someone like Morris, the 22-year-old Seattle Sounders forward who seems to have so much upside – but who hasn’t made much of an impression in 2017 for club or for country. Miazga, also 22, is stuck in a similar place.

If Arena gives up on these guys as viable 2018 World Cup options, it’s going to alter the arc of their development, potentially denting their impact for the next cycle. Because between now and the time to board that big jet airliner to Russia, there just won’t be many chances to push ahead on the depth chart. We all look at those two in particular – maybe at Agudelo, too, although we’ve long waited for his breakthrough – and know they have a chance to be something special. For now, though, Arena doesn’t have the luxury of waiting.

Beyond the January camp, they probably wouldn’t get a serious look until after next year’s World Cup. That’s a big-picture problem, because a World Cup can do so much for players’ careers in the cycles to come.

What the math looks like

USA TODAY Sports-Kim Klement

USA TODAY Sports-Kim Klement

For argument’s sake, of the 14 players Arena trusted in Saturday’s win-or-go-home match against Costa Rica, let’s say there are probably 10 who can feel good about their places on a 23-man brigade bound for Russia. Obviously, that comes with the usual caveats on injuries and form, but you get the idea.

Now let’s add a six-pack of European based names who are in good positions: John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin.

Now add a second and third goalkeeper (Brad Guzan and another). And then add Alejandro Bedoya, who remains in a good place although he left U.S. camp for personal business after the Gold Cup group stage. That gives you 19 of a possible 23-man World Cup roster.

We know Arena leans heavily on players he knows and trusts. Actually all coaches do, but Arena perhaps more than others. He’s just no gambler that way.

That means guys like Gyasi Zardes and (don’t think this is impossible) DaMarcus Beasley may have a head start in this race. Even then, there are places to be had – but only if a Garza, Hedges or Morris can reach out and grab one of them.

Have they during the Gold Cup? Here was Arena’s answer (before Saturday’s match, but likely the same afterward since most of the bubble guys didn’t play):

“There have been some,” he said. “We’ve had the opportunity to start, I believe, 27 players to date. So there have been a number of players who have shone. Uh, yeah, it helps us formulate our rosters for future competitions, most notably the World Cup qualifiers in September and October and hopefully for a position to be in a World Cup next year. It’s more information in hopefully being able to piece together our roster.”

Does that sound like a “yes” to anybody?

That clock is ticking

There are more names still to consider. Emerson Hyndman, who is back with Bournemouth in the Premier League after a successful loan spell with Rangers. There’s Danny Williams, strangely out of the U.S. mix but increasingly hard to ignore, also in the Premier League now with Huddersfield Town. Aron Johannsson, in a bad spot perhaps at Werder Bremen, but still a factor in all this at age 26, is in the mix.

After Wednesday, the next time you’ll see any of these men together is in New Jersey against Costa Rica, on Sept. 1 in a World Cup qualifier. Go ahead and file that under “must win,” just like the last two home games in final-round qualifying for Russia.

The United States might get one World Cup qualifier with its ticket already punched; that would give Arena one more test beaker for experimenting, but it’s no guarantee. Then there is FIFA window in November, when the United States is likely to add a friendly or two, most likely in Europe. Then the January camp, and then you’re into fine-tuning time ahead of Russia.

The point is, the opportunities for experimenting or for kicking tires on new names has mostly come and gone. The Gold Cup was that opportunity for a lot of these in-betweens.

Consider this: Through the Gold Cup, there have been questions about why Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan weren’t part of the gathered forces. They are playmakers, guys who can find the vacant spaces and make the final passes that unlock the tightly sewn defenses (like the Ticos’ well-rehearsed unit on Saturday, one not unlocked until Dempsey’s special moment). Well, there’s a hard truth at work here.

Why Feilhaber hasn’t been a bigger part of the U.S. group under Klinsmann before and now under Arena is probably down to personality and chemistry issues. No such issues with Kljestan, but his past performances in the national team shirt have been a series of “not good, not bad … nothing special.” A bunch of “nothing special” may keep you in the mix for a while, because the whole international soccer thing never looks beyond you. Then again, at some point, it’s not quite enough.

Chances in camp and in national team matches come and go. Opportunities are precious. Use ‘em, or lose ‘em.

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