With the U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign on stable ground, Bruce Arena will set aside global aims for a few weeks and turn attention to regional ambitions: the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a biennial competition with no bearing on next year’s grand tournament in Russia.
The national team coach has promised to introduce a number of fresh faces and retain only a portion of the full-strength squad that defeated Trinidad and Tobago and drew in Mexico City in the recent qualifiers. Next Sunday, he’ll name 23 players, pulled from a 40-man preliminary list, before opening training camp a day later.
The 12-nation tournament, which will be played at 14 U.S. venues, begins July 7. The U.S. opener is the next day against Panama in Nashville.
Because the Gold Cup is a confederation championship, Arena has the right to summon any player he wishes. However, his regulars from European and Mexican clubs are in the gap between the end of long league schedules and the start of preseason; they also just completed a two-week stay with the national team.
As a result, Arena didn’t even bother naming most of them to the Gold Cup preliminary squad. Christian Pulisic, the team’s 18-year-old star, is on the prelim list but is expected to receive time off ahead of Borussia Dortmund training camp. Pulisic and the rest of Arena’s trusted corps will return for World Cup qualifiers Sept. 1-5.
Arena predicted “a nice blend of some experienced players and some less experienced. They’re going to have an opportunity to show what they’re about. . . . These players will push to position themselves to be a big part of things moving forward.”
Will he extend offers to Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, who split goalkeeping chores in the qualifiers? At 38, Howard does not recover as quickly as he once did, and Guzan is joining a new team (Atlanta) next month after years in Europe. How about Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley?
The Gold Cup player pool includes only four non-MLS figures who weren’t on the qualifying roster: defenders Matt Miazga and Eric Lichaj, and midfielders Joe Corona and Kenny Saief.
Several MLS candidates who didn’t play much or at all in the qualifiers seem certain to be called up, such as Dallas defender Matt Hedges, Chicago midfielder Dax McCarty and Seattle forward Jordan Morris. Arena could offer a prominent role to Dallas’s Kellyn Acosta, 21, an impressive midfielder who started against Mexico.
Several MLS players with little or no international experience are in the running, including D.C. United keeper Bill Hamid. Arena will also consider attackers Chris Pontius (Philadelphia), Gyasi Zardes (Los Angeles), Juan Agudelo (New England) and Chris Wondolowski (San Jose).
MLS players selected to the national team will miss the U.S. Open Cup on June 27-28 and league games June 29-July 6. However, with so many players from the United States and other countries involved in the tournament, the league will go dark during the group stage.
There are three intriguing figures are on the preliminary list: Saief, Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez and Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer.
Saief, a Florida-born, 23-year-old attacker for Belgian club Gent, is awaiting FIFA approval to switch affiliation to the United States from Israel. He has played for Israel’s junior squads and the national team in 2016 friendlies. (Official competition would’ve bound him to Israel for good.)
If clearances comes after the Gold Cup roster deadline Saturday, he wouldn’t be eligible for the tournament but would be locked into a U.S. future. (He would lose Israeli playing status.)
Gonzalez, 22, was born in North Carolina and grew up in Texas but represented Mexico at the junior level. He, too, is seeking permission from FIFA to represent the United States. His chances of gaining approval before Saturday seem greater than Saief’s, but like Saief, FIFA’s ruling would tie him to the U.S. program, regardless of whether he plays in the Gold Cup.
Dwyer, 26, arrived from England to attend college and became a U.S. citizen in March, making him eligible to play for the national team right away. He has been among MLS’s most prolific scorers for four years with 57 goals in 127 regular season matches.
After the group stage, quarterfinal teams are allowed to make as many as six changes to the roster; those new players must come from the 40-man preliminary list.