With almost all the buzz from U.S. soccer coming from young star Christian Pulisic, head coach Bruce Arena will turn to other youngsters to lead the team into the 2017 Gold Cup.
The tournament, consisting of CONCACAF squads, started in 1991 and has been played every odd year since 2003. In a so-called “off year” Gold Cup (meaning the year before the World Cup), the winner receives not only a trophy to hold up, but also the chance to at least play for the right to reach the Confederations Cup. Mexico, the 2015 Gold Cup champion, represented CONCACAF in Russia this summer after knocking off the United States, the 2013 champs, in a single-game playoff two years ago.
While you’ll surely recognize some names on this year’s Gold Cup squad if you’ve followed the U.S. during World Cup qualifying, there are a lot of new faces. This was a purposeful decision by Arena, because this competition is a great proving ground for players hoping to contribute on bigger stages going forward. (You can see the entire roster here.)
The squad isn’t a bunch of novices. Brad Guzan has years of experience minding the net for his country, and defenders Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi have all been important World Cup contributors. The same goes for Alejandro Bedoya, whose 61 international appearances represent the most on the team.
Still, there’s plenty of youth and international inexperience to go around. There’s no Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore up top, no Michael Bradley in the midfield, no Geoff Cameron in defense and no Tim Howard in net. Here are three things Arena will will be looking for, and in turn what you should be looking for as well.
Who performs up top?
Judging by how this squad was selected, it’s easy to tell that Arena is focusing on strikers who can help him going forward. All three forwards are looking to push for a roster spot alongside regulars Dempsey, Altidore and Bobby Wood. Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo are youngsters who have significant international experience but are yet to warrant consistent appearances for the senior team. Morris, who was first called up while just a sophomore at Stanford, brings speed and flair to the side, but he’s been off the mark for the Seattle Sounders this season. After scoring 12 goals in 34 matches last year, he has just two in 16 this year. Agudelo, meanwhile, came on as a star at age 17, fell off the map entirely and then returned to star in New England.
But neither man has quite as much to prove as Dom Dwyer, who was born in England but moved to the States in 2009 and became a citizen in March. He celebrated his United States debut right, slamming home the opening goal in a 2-1 win over Ghana:
A feisty goalscorer, Dwyer gives defenders fits with his incessant work rate, and if he can find the mark a few more times in the Gold Cup, his prospects moving forward will be looking up.
The future of the midfield
Bradley is 29 years old. Jermaine Jones is 35. And while Bradley is a certainty for Russia, Jones is far from it. So Arena mixed in Joe Corona, Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta against Ghana and will continue to tinker in the middle to see who can pull the strings from the center of the park. Corona is perhaps the team’s most skilled on-ball player, especially in tight spaces. McCarty is a tireless defensive engine in the midfield, willing and able to run end to end. Acosta, meanwhile, is sublimely skilled as an incisive passer and set piece specialist.
It will also be worth watching talented 21-year-old Christian Roldan, who has yet to appear for the national team. A clinical passer, Roldan shows savvy beyond his years and ought to be cap-tied to the U.S. by the end of the tournament. On the outside, Gyasi Zardes must recapture the goal-scoring form he showed earlier in his career that made him a favorite of former coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Villafaña locks down a spot?
The rise of left back Jorge Villafaña has been pretty incredible. He landed a spot with Chivas USA’s academy via a TV show, has since worked his way up the ranks and now starts consistently for Santos Laguna in Mexico. Called up in early 2017, he has impressed on the left flank, earning a spot in the starting 11 in six of his seven appearances. With continued solid play, Villafaña should become a consistent starter for Arena, allowing Fabian Johnson to continue his transition to the midfield.
July 8, 4:30 p.m. ET vs. Panama
July 12, 9 p.m. ET vs. Martinique
July 15, 7 p.m. ET vs. Nicaragua
El Tri took its strongest squad to Russia for the Confederations Cup and brings a very young group to the Gold Cup. Already watered down, the team lost Alan Pulido to a broken arm against Paraguay, replacing him with Erick “Cubo” Torres ahead of the opening weekend of the competition. And while Torres has been outstanding for the Houston Dynamo this season, he has some young talents to compete against for playing time. Érick Gutiérrez, 22, will be charged with minimizing the impact of Pulido’s injury and has impressed with Pachuca. Orbelín Pineda, rumored as a Manchester City target in late 2016, is a name to watch for on the wing. A workhorse midfielder with long-range finishing ability, Pineda is a big part of the future of Juan Carlos Osorio’s team.
Mexico is always among the favorites in this tournament, and even with such a young squad, should be treated as such. As veteran midfielder Jorge Hernández said, “We’re here to become champions.”
July 9, 9 p.m. ET vs. El Salvador
July 13, 10 p.m. ET vs. Jamaica
July 16, 8 p.m. ET vs. Curaçao
More soccer coverage from FC Yahoo:
• USMNT leans on newcomers in Gold Cup tune-up win against Ghana
• Mexico punished late vs. Portugal in Confed Cup third-place match
• Arena’s Gold Cup roster blends promising youth with experience