Why results don't matter for the USMNT at this year's Gold Cup

ISI Photos-John Dorton

You play the game to win, right? Sure, but other factors are at work for the U.S. this summer. 

Every tournament has a winner – but that doesn’t mean the primary objective every time for every tournament is “winning it.” Sometimes lifting the trophy gets reduced to a “B list” target.

That’s where the United States is with this CONCACAF Gold Cup. When it comes to U.S. goals for this looming multi-city event, “winning” is more or less a bonus.

That will bother plenty of you, and that’s OK. For you, re-establishing that can-do mentality and the “find a way to win” ethos, those cherished Captain America-esque qualities that seemed to erode somewhat under Jurgen Klinsmann, will continue to be a priority target under Bruce Arena management 2.0.

Fair enough in the big picture, but it may represent small thinking here. Lifting this particular trophy will have a sugary snack effect; the rush will feel good for a moment, but there’s no fiber for sticking to the ribs. Seriously, does anyone get lasting satisfaction from winning a Gold Cup?

The U.S. team is gathering now for Gold Cup prep, a pre-tourney friendly against Ghana ahead of the July 8 group-play opener in Nashville against Panama.

Getting far enough in the tournament definitely should be a priority, but that part is mostly cosmetic.

The real money here is getting a deep tournament run, five games at least, which means a semifinal appearance. That supplies Arena and his staff with an extended look at this Gold Cup bunch, the 23 named Sunday plus any switch-outs (oddly permissible after group stage in this tournament, CONCACAF-y as that sounds).

Past that the targets are: further stabilize the team less than a year before Russia 2018 by identifying backups across the field (the fullback spots, for instance), picking the ideal third goalkeeper to develop behind Brad Guzan and Tim Howard, and to once and for all dislodge the team from Clint & Jermaine Jones. You probably know what that is – but just in case, keep reading for the explainer.

Auditions now open

USA TODAY Sports-Isaiah J. Downing

USA TODAY Sports-Isaiah J. Downing

Arena has done a lot of roster building and bolstering since his late-November appointment. It’s a nice change from the erratic Klinsmann years, when guessing roster and lineups was a fool’s errand. We guessed correctly that Arena’s choices would become pillars of predictable stability by comparison. Just look at the back line.

Arena’s preferred back four seems clear: From right to left, it’s DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks and Jorge Villafana. Omar Gonzalez is first-choice backup at center back, tested and trusted in critical qualifiers and World Cup contests. So, that looks tightly stitched together.

Less clear are the second-string selections.

Eric Lichaj, Justin Morrow and Graham Zusi will be given first shot at outside back spots, but the answers won’t necessarily be found there. If none of them can grab Arena’s attention in a meaningful way, then guys like Greg Garza and Matt Polster are lurking. Or Arena could turn to his old faithful, DaMarcus Beasley, the enduring U.S. option who continues to rage against the dying of his international light.

And what about a backup for Michael Bradley as the important midfield screener and distributor? Dax McCarty, you’re up! The Chicago Fire veteran has a chance to do what Kyle Beckerman did at the same spot: establish himself as a national team go-to late in his pro career. Yes, it would be as a backup. But international backups in this part of the world get their moments, with injuries, yellow card build-up and match congestion all being what they are.

Further up the field, can Dom Dwyer be the battering ram when Jozy Altidore can’t play, or does Arena need to look at C.J. Sapong? If you don’t think “battering ram when Altidore cannot play” isn’t an essential USMNT role, please review the World Cup 2014 video.

USA TODAY Sports-Christopher Hanewinckel

USA TODAY Sports-Christopher Hanewinckel

In all honesty, group-play matches against Martinique and Nicaragua won’t answer these questions. But the opener against Panama, plus those potential quarterfinal and semifinal tests could be valuable “tells.”

Finding that third goalkeeper is tricky – and the Gold Cup is unlikely to seal any deals. What it may do, however, is help inform the choice. If Sean Johnson can be the guy, somehow nudging Bill Hamid out of the role, then fair enough. If not, they’ll need to get a good, long look at Jesse Gonzalez, which is probably in the cards anyway.

Getting the roster balance right

USA TODAY Sports-Kyle Terada

USA TODAY Sports-Kyle Terada

This current, useful U.S. Gold Cup roster mix leans for now toward the younger set. That could change if Arena brings in a couple more trusted “olds” (Altidore and Bradley, for instance) after group play.  

Either way, those are mere details in one important sense: In the big picture, Arena is wisely moving the group beyond the days when Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey were the building blocks. It’s an essential shift, well past time that it happened.

That’s not to suggest that Jones and (especially) Dempsey cannot have ongoing roles. But years of USMNT lineups were tailored around them, like suits cut to fit their shape. Now when it comes to identifying a couple of basic team structures the starting point won’t be: “We need what they give us, so we have to build the right kind of cover and support around them.”

Arena’s two-layered blueprint for the last pair of World Cup qualifiers was perfect. One formation and set of lineup selections built to hammer away at opponents tucked into a defensive crouch, and one formation/selection arranged to defend first then spring into counter.

Continuing to refine those two general tactical arrangements and finding the best skill sets to fill those roles is just part of the equation. The other is about chemistry, about ensuring everyone is OK with their roles within. That means everyone, not just the newly identified players, but Jones (perhaps part of the plan) and Dempsey (probably part of it). Jones isn’t part of the 40-man Gold Cup roster, but Dempsey is.

Based on that telltale temper tantrum, thrown after his 61st-minute withdrawal in the June 8 win over Trinidad & Tobago, Dempsey didn’t quite look “on board.”

If he gets called in for final round Gold Cup matches, he needs to be. On board, that is, with the bigger project, with the plan that makes most sense for Arena and for the team – never mind what’s best for Dempsey.

The World Cup clock is ticking: 11-plus months and counting.

The United States has four qualifiers remaining, and at least three of those are likely to be “all hands on deck,” with no room for dilly-dally and experimentation. This Gold Cup is the time for that. Winning? Sure, great. But it’s just a bonus, a “secondary objective” to things that really matter ahead of next year’s thing that really, super matters.

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Steve Davis' column, America's Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.