Neil W. Blackmon
The opening half year of Bruce Arena’s second tenure with the United States Men’s National Team has had one primary focus, that of earning as many points as possible from four qualifying matches in the Hex and putting the US back on track to qualify for the 2018 World Cup next summer in Russia. The Americans did well in the first half of this endeavor, earning four points from two matches including a tough away point at Panama in a match where they were missing at least four and perhaps five starters in the absence of Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, John brooks and DeAndre Yedlin.
Still, the journey back to World Cup qualifying safety is hardly done. The US sit in fourth place in the Hex through four matches, only a point clear of last place Trinidad and Tobago, who they will play in the first of two qualifiers next month. Three short days and a lengthy plane ride separate that vital match from a historically fruitless fixture at Estadio Azteca against Mexico, who remain unbeaten in the Hex and would love nothing more than to sweep their border rivals in qualifying this cycle.
Given the precarious position the Americans were in when he started, steely resolve on the four qualifying matches on the front half of the year was order number one, two and probably three for Bruce Arena. Little time could be spent on evaluating the side for the future. Couple this reality with the fact many in US Soccer circles viewed a second Arena tenure as a mere stopgap or emergency call to the bullpen, and there was little time for the longview or more orbital glimpse at the US program.
Nevertheless, if the US handle business as they should against Trinidad and Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park next month, the US will feel better about proceedings moving towards the final four World Cup qualifiers in the fall. And perhaps then, with nothing but the Gold Cup on tap this summer, the US and Bruce Arena will take time to look into the future. Arena has hinted as much, telling reporters in a phone call last month that he’d like to use the Gold Cup to “experiment” a little if the Americans are in a safer place from a qualifying standpoint. And stopgap measure or no, Arena has not been shy about gazing into the future, as the manager has suggested the US could and should “start talking about winning” a jointly-hosted 2026 World Cup on CONCACAF soil.
A chance for US Soccer to evaluate the future after two summers of being immersed in the present or past has given the 2017 edition of the Gold Cup- a tournament with 2021 Confederations Cup implications and little else– a needed extra jolt of energy and momentum as the July 7th opening match, featuring Honduras and Costa Rica, approaches. The Americans open a day later against Panama at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, and assuming they achieve the expected split in June qualifying, will enter the tournament in solid position to qualify for the World Cup but not lacking in questions long-term.
The Gold Cup, and a friendly group that along with Panama includes CONCACAF minnows Martinique and Nicaragua, should afford Bruce Arena and US Soccer an excellent chance to evaluate and probe for answers. Certainly the US will field a competitive team, and Sunil Gulati and the US Soccer federation have made it clear they consider the Confederations Cup important. But the new Gold Cup format is highly forgiving. If anything, the format provides an incentive to experiment, as the loser of the 2017 edition gets a second bite at the apple in 2019, and if it wins, CONCACAF lets a cash grab playoff sort things out- a reality that certainly inured to Mexico’s benefit last World Cup cycle.
Couple the forgiving format with a World Cup the following summer and a US manager with a well-earned reputation for playing young players on grand stages– see DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Convey and Eddie Johnson, among others– and there’s a palpable buzz around an American Gold Cup adventure that has been missing from this type of tournament since at least 2013, when Landon Donovan returned to joyously swashbuckle his way through the competition and deliver Jurgen Klinsmann the only silverware of his American managerial tenure.
Given this opportunity, here are some players and questions the US should attempt to evaluate and sort out at this summer’s Gold Cup.
What’s going on with the US defense?
The Americans were steady defensively in the March qualifiers, a testament to the sharpness of Omar Gonzalez, whose steady play at Pachuca in Liga MX carried over into the national team, and in Panama, an outstanding recovery tackle by Tim Ream on a Los Canaleros breakaway and a fine performance from Tim Howard.
Still, these were two good performances on the heels of several deeply concerning ones for the American defense, dating back to last summer’s semifinal shellacking against Argentina. And while Lionel Messi and the Albiceleste can make even a great defensive side look bad on their day, anyone who saw Costa Rica light the Americans up for four goals or watched the Americans fumble away at least a draw against Mexico and worse, alllow longtime foil Rafa Marquez to collect a winner in the 89th minute, knew the US had problems in the back.
Because the US were struggling late in the Klinsmann era to create chances and seemingly had no one outside of Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood to score goals, and to some extent because John Brooks has been so steady for Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga and Geoff Cameron had been a capable partner, the Americans defensive problems were overlooked. November exposed the United States defensively, and while there’s a fair argument to be made that this was more about individual error than systematic or organizational failings, the lack of answers at fullback makes the summer a poor time to have a problem at center back. Yes, Gonzalez is playing well, and if the US are healthy, there are solutions. And yes, March calmed concerns temporarily. But the US hasn’t entered a tournament entirely healthy in a long time and will likely enter the summer with Brooks coming off a muscle tear, Cameron’s form in England spotty throughout the spring, and Arena, by his own admission, still probing for answers from a host of flawed solutions at fullback.
That sets the Gold Cup up to be a good test for some new faces.
The Chelsea youngster has made good on his loan time in Holland, and this weekend helped Vittesse win their first major trophy in club history. Given that they’ve been a soccer club since 1892, this is a fairly immense deal. Miazga’s loan expires this summer, and questions (albeit positive ones) about where he’ll play his soccer next season cloud his Gold Cup availability. If Chelsea plan to keep him in the fold, to add depth to a team poised to make a run at the Champions League, playing internationals in America as Chelsea’s preseason hits all cylinders might not be optimal. But if Chelsea plan to loan Miazga again, a Gold Cup would be a great proving ground for a club with broader ambition than the Dutch-based Vittesse.
One reason we at TYAC fancied FC Dallas’s chances of breaking through in the CONCACAF Champions League this spring was the club’s lockdown central defense. Hedges was called into the US camp in January but had to leave early due to an injury. Nevertheless, his defensive partner Walker Zimmerman has impressed Bruce Arena and Hedges is a better positional defender than his Dallas teammate. He makes difficult positional plays tidily, which is a requirement of international caliber CBs and as the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, he’s arguably the best American playing the position right now on his continent (including Omar Gonzalez). That warrants a Gold Cup, in our view. If not now, when?
Another player who could be looking for a different club situation come July, much here will depend on whether Nottingham Forest avoid the drop to League One, which is still possible as the Championship campaign concludes. Lichaj has been a rare bright spot in a tough campaign for Nottingham Forest, and we know, for once, that he’s on the radar of the US manager because the US manager has said so. Lichaj can also capably play both fullback positions, and if the question is whether he can do so in the heat and grime and speed of CONCACAF, a Gold Cup against sides like Martinique, who boast plenty of speed if little else– is a good test.
If there’s a player in American soccer in more dire need of a loan, it is hard to think of who it is. The Spurs youngster is athletically, physically and mentally ready to play at a high-level, even if he takes his lumps early on. And he’s simply not seeing the pitch in London. Here’s an interlude where I direct your attention to this masterful work by Noah Davis on Carter-Vickers over at Bleacher Report. It’s a good primer on just how physically and athletically gifted a player we’re dealing with, and how his career has gone to date.
But here’s where things get complicated. Tottenham are so good at that position, with Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, that first team play, even for a side destined for the Champions League next season, isn’t assured. And that’s with, as Will Parchman points out, the adulation and praise Carter-Vickers has received from his manager, Mauricio Pochettino.
Carter-Vickers could go to Spurs camp in July and grind and become the reliable option A or B off the bench. And heaven knows there are plenty of matches in an English football season, especially for a Champions League team. But the safest bet is a loan next season. And a good Gold Cup performance could help facilitate a high-level loan better than July club friendlies, at least in theory.
Further, the US were getting blown out by Costa Rica with Carter-Vickers watching helplessly on the sideline and…well, the bottom line is he’s not cap-tied. It’s time to fix that problem.
Who starts behind the back four? And what of the American goalkeeper situation?
It’s an issue for the United States that we wrote about in January and addressed on an early edition of The Yanks Are Coming Soccer Show and one that was contemplated at length in this excellent work by Jeff Carlisle over at ESPN, which features comments from Bruce Arena and Kasey Keller. Who’s next for the US at goalkeeper?
For years, the answer was quite simple, as the torch progressed naturally from the likes of Tony Meola to Brad Friedel to Kasey Keller to Tim Howard and, last summer at least, to Brad Guzan. But there’s been no natural heir apparent behind Guzan. Further, the US, blessed for years with a number three of immense quality in Nick Rimando, now see Howard and Rimando pushing 40 and Guzan biding his time on a relegation-bound bench in the Premier League. A position of strength for years has a position where 1-3 is a question mark, no matter how loudly the American players protest.
It is, of course, good that they protest. It shows the camp still has confidence in keepers who have delivered as many compelling national team performances as Howard, Guzan and Rimando. But it is fair to ask what is next, and how much the US can rely on any of these three players to be a difference-maker in a positive sense in Russia next summer, should the US qualify.
The thinking on the Gold Cup then is two-fold. On the one hand, if the Americans are committed to Brad Guzan moving forward, perhaps they call him in and put him in the next for the length of the tournament. He needs the live reps, that’s for sure. And it is instructive that Bruce Arena told ESPN he felt “Guzan, Howard and Rimando are all goalkeepers that can still be around through the next World Cup.”
On the other hand, the US have a host of options at the position that have either not received a serious chance (David Bingham, Cody Cropper, William Yarbrough) or have not remained healthy long enough to win the trust of a US manager (Bill Hamid). And that’s before you start talking about players in the pipeline or just waiting on a phone call, such as Crew youngster Zack Steffen, Orlando City’s Joe Bendik, or U20 star Jonathan Klinsmann, who, laughs aside, has trained with Stuttgart and Everton recently.
That’s plenty of questions for Arena to ponder at the one position that has, for over a generation, offered US Soccer a bit of security.
Youth Movement in Midfield?
Setting aside the kid from Dortmund, the US have as high a number of promising prospects in midfield as they’ve had in some time. A few who will be near locks for the Gold Cup, barring injury, are:
The FC Dallas midfielder is a budding superstar in MLS and will likely be one of a select number of American players who is involved in the June qualifiers and pulls Gold Cup double duty. Only 21, he has been the best player on the field in CONCACAF Champions League matches and, playing his natural position for Bruce Arena, appears to be an integral part of the boss’s plans for Russia 2018. He’ll play in the Gold Cup. The question that tournament may go a long way to answering is whether he’ll compete for a starting job at the World Cup.
His loan spell with Rangers from AFC Bournemouth was a roaring success, and a good sign for a player who early in his career struggled with physical and rugged soccer matches. For years, American fans lamented the lack of box-to-box midfield talent. Hyndman gives the US two under the age of 21, and while it is fair to suggest Scotland isn’t a particularly challenging soccer league, there’s something to be said for dominating lesser competition, and that’s precisely what Hyndman has done since arriving in Glasgow. Hyndman is an adept passer, and a guy who can get between the lines and make an incisive pass to a runner in a channel. He’s an attack-oriented midfielder who’s capable defensively, the kind of guy who traditionally works in an Arena system and with Sebastian Lletget’s injury, a player that could warrant a significant look this summer.
The Tijuana winger checks all the boxes. Position of need? Yes. Speed? Yes. Tidy on the ball? Yes. Successful at his club? Yes. Good in his few opportunities in a US shirt? Yes. This summer could be a showcase for Arriola, especially with Pulisic and Fabian Johnson, who returned to the fold for Monchengladbach this week, unlikely to feature much in the Gold Cup, at least until the knockout stages, when roster changes are permitted. Arriola has been a player that has turned his game up in a US shirt at all levels, and is precisely the type of player whose value in the dressing room tangibly adds to his value on the roster and on the field.
The Sounders midfielder was mentioned directly by Bruce Arena as a player that merited a look in 2017, and the Gold Cup will provide the manager the chance to make good on his word.
Roldan has been a bastion of consistency while playing Ripken-like minutes- he logged over 3,000 in the middle for the MLS Champs in 2016. What’s more? He is improving dramatically, exceeding the expectations of the scouts who allowed him to slip to 16th in the MLS draft. Arguably, he’s been a more important piece of the Sounders puzzle than the electrifying Jordan Morris, high praise given all the drama and debate over Morris’s decision to ply his trade in MLS and not overseas.
The US defensive midfield core isn’t getting any younger, either, which makes it a prime time to lock in on new options. Roldan can establish himself, at 21, as the odds on favorite to hold the job in the years to come with a good Gold Cup.
There are forwards worth mentioning as well, from citizen Dom Dwyer to the only 24 but still maddeningly inconsistent Juan Agudelo to the aforementioned Jordan Morris to players still in the fold overseas like Terrence Boyd or Rubio Rubin, now playing in Denmark.
But the larger questions, for now, remain in the center of the pitch and in between the pipes, and the US will get a Gold Cup to see if they’ve developed- or are developing- some answers.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.