For all the pomp, circumstance, and pageantry that surrounds the World Cup every four years, it is the secondary competitions that determine the trajectory of players and national teams. Spain gave notice of its status as an international juggernaut by winning Euro 2008 handily, then defending its title four years later in 2012 after hoisting the World Cup trophy in 2010. The Spanish managed to win the Mediterranean games in that span, as well as finish second in the 2013 Confederations Cup after being eliminated in 2009 by Bob Bradley’s American team.
Logically, then, tournaments such as the 2015 Gold Cup and the Copa America Centenario in 2016 are competitions that fans of the United States’ National team should be paying close attention to, both to gauge the relative ability of the squad and to catch a glimpse of who might be on the plane to Russia. This is especially true in light of the new direction Jürgen Klinsmann is seeking to take his squad of Yanks on the international stage.
A 1-0 win against a Czech Republic team largely identical to the one that beat the Netherlands in a subsequent Euro 2016 qualifying marked the first victory of the 2018 World Cup cycle. In addition to being yet another win against a European team in Europe (a feat that was nearly impossible in the not-so-distant past), this victory marked the first of an American team set up not in the preferred 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 of previous squads, but the 4-3-3, a system that American youth sides have utilized for years. While defensively the Americans looked fairly shaky, players such as Joe Gyau and Julian Green looked quite at home moving forward, leading to a number of chances and better offensive play than Americans have seen in a very long time.
Given the changing formation and desired makeup of the national team, it is worth looking at the potential squad for next year’s Gold Cup. Though not an indicator of the team that will take the pitch in 2018 in Russia, the players who take the field in 2015 certainly will be a litmus test on the success Klinsmann has had in molding his squad into a more attacking, dictatorial force. Exploratory sides like the one picked to take on Ecuador this evening, and Honduras four days later, provide opportunities, but competitions reveal those who will be relied upon to win. Let’s start at the back.
Tim Howard has taken a well-deserved break from international play, having spent years between the goalposts for the United States in numerous friendlies and international competitions. Attempting to fill the gap will be these three netminders, each hoping to solidify an American defense that has been shaky at seemingly every position for years. Rimando has been a rock for Real Salt Lake, as well as the national team in the second half of the win against the Czechs. He and Guzan will battle for top billing in Hartford and Boca Raton, hoping to win the race to be Howard’s successor.
Guzan has been no slouch himself, piloting a stout Villan defense this season while making a compelling case to be the new American number one. The goalkeeping competition will certainly be one of the fiercest in the coming months, made no easier by a new crop of young talent led by Bill Hamid. While plying his trade for DC United, Hamid has quietly put up a 1.15 GAA, only .01 more than Rimando, while amassing 37 more saves for a resurgent DC team that still lags behind Real in terms of talent. No other American goalkeeper has a better resume to be on the Gold Cup squad after the Guzan-Rimando tandem.
John Anthony Brooks
Defensively, the United States has never been more in a state of flux than it is right now. Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra formed a centerback duo that served the American national team well through multiple World Cups. With injury and age, however, defense has become much more a weakness than strength, with nearly every position perpetually a revolving door, rotating new starters in and out with each new match. The strength of any team’s defense is consistency amongst the starters. Game after game of defensive reps promotes a depth of understanding that can appear almost psychic in nature.
Since the demise of Oguchi Onyewu, the United States has struggled mightily to achieve the same consistent, solid play between centerbacks that the Yanks enjoyed with Onyewu and Bocanegra manning their posts. Ream and Gonzalez have been the most consistent in playing first team minutes on a regular basis. Ream has steadily increased the level of his play whilst in England, while Gonzalez has been firmly planted in the Galaxy starting lineup for several seasons.
Neither has shown signs of developing into a superstar as of yet, but a successful Gold Cup campaign would certainly do quite a lot to change that impression. Okugo has certainly shown well on the fringes of the American national team and, should Jürgen choose to select him, could solidify a place in the German’s pool for 2018 with a solid performance. Johnson, should he choose to spend another summer donning the shirt for the Stars and Stripes, would add an excellent attacking element, as well as solid defending on the right.
Yedlin’s place in the Gold Cup squad would seem to be a given, yet his impending move to Tottenham could certainly dash these carefully laid plans. John Anthony Brooks has worlds of potential, but needs to show he can earn first team minutes on a consistent basis. The Gold Cup could provide young Mr. Brooks an opportunity to improve even more, cementing his status in the team for 2018. And, with the last of these (hypothetical) selections, we come to the unicorn of American soccer players. A true, young, full-time starter at left back has emerged in the form of Greg Garza. He has become entrenched as a starter for Tijuana, making him the heir apparent to Damarcus Beasley, and the prospect to most likely make American fans heave a huge sigh of relief. The Gold Cup provides Garza the opportunity to replace the longest serving player in American history on the international stage.
Jürgen Klinsmann’s transition from a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 to a pure 4-3-3 has had the effect of making the midfield pool much shallower for international competitions, an unfortunate consequence given the plethora of midfield talent the United States currently has, and the dearth of pure attacking talent currently in the ranks. Fortunately, however, the transition into the next World Cup cycle affords new names the opportunity to rise to the top of the American consciousness.
Mikkel Diskerud has long been a favorite of American super fans, both for the quality of his game and his willing, gregarious engagement of supporters. Diskerud plies his trade with Rosenborg in Norway, offering a creative spark for his club and country that has been sorely missing. Gold Cup 2015 marks the first opportunity that Diskerud has to take the reins of the attacking responsibilities in midfield and lock up a starting role for the national team in major international competitions. Bradley, due to injury and tactical complications resulting from the transitional state of the American national team at the last World Cup, has shown his inability to be an effective attacking player.
Despite this poor showing, however, Michael Bradley remains the best American player at maintaining possession and providing a playmaking streak from a deeper position on the pitch. Furthermore, Bradley remains one of the most effective ball winners in the American pool, a vital trait with a midfield reduced in numbers. His presence will be essential to continued American success in international play, and the Gold Cup allows Bradley to maintain his edge against CONCACAF competition. Kitchen and Trapp are players new to the international stage, yet have proven worthy of an opportunity to showcase their abilities in a major competition. Trapp has become a fan favorite in Cleveland for his leadership abilities, his technical quality on the ball, and the steel he provides when the Crew loses possession.
Kitchen has been the rock of DC United’s midfield, and provides an infusion of new blood for the ball-winning role that will determine the success or failure of the American squad moving forward. Lee Nguyen, an elder statesman at 27, has shown himself to be an attacking force in MLS, inserting himself into the squad for 2015 by virtue of his creative play. Given the desire of Klinsmann to transition to a more attacking, controlling style, Nguyen is a name that must be included by virtue of his play.
Dillon Powers, of the recently named Top 24 under 24 in MLS, is a young, attacking player that has also earned an opportunity by virtue of his play. With five goals and nine assists to his name this year for a poor Rapids squad, Powers has an opportunity to show Klinsmann something with better players surrounding him. Finally, Joe Corona has emerged as a consistent starter in Mexico, and may attract enough attention to earn a call in 2015. His familiarity with Klinsmann certainly lends credence to the idea that a call up for 2015 may be in the offing.
At the front, the potential names are an interesting mix of familiar names and a dash of new prospects sprinkled in. Julian Green is familiar to American fans new and old as the exciting German-born teenager who scored so brilliantly against Belgium in extra time. He is currently struggling to find his footing as a professional on loan to Hamburg, but remains the player with the highest ceiling in the American pool. Another round with the American squad in 2015 will only help his integration into the senior squad for 2018.
Jozy Altidore remains the most maddeningly inconsistent player to don an American uniform. For Sunderland, he rarely finds the pitch, only being brought on in cup matches to give the Black Cats’ starters a breather. In the United States’ shirt, Jozy is a handful, regularly barreling through CONCACAF defenses to find a goal, only to fade into obscurity once he returns to his club. Altidore’s status rests on his position in his club’s hierarchy, and a move away from Sunderland (perhaps England, as well) would give him the best chance to get his career back on track.
Gyasi Zardes, quite simply, scores. He bangs in goal after goal, smashing golazos, poaching, doing whatever he can to add to his tally sheet. Purely on performance, Zardes has become the most lethal threat in the American pool up top, making his Gold Cup debut a veritable certainty.
Joe Gyau most likely will be on the pitch in 2015 because of his skills as a winger, skills that are relatively unmatched in the American team. Making the 18 at a club like Borussia Dortmund is a feat that is most impressive, especially given Gyau’s struggles with St. Pauli only a season ago. While unlikely to make a serious impact at Dortmund this year, Gyau has already shown enough to deserve to be called up for a major competition.
Another young American prospect, Rubio Rubin has become a regular starter with Utrecht in only his first professional season with the club. Notching two assists in his last match while performing the fabled “Number 10” role, Rubin can start for the United States anywhere in the attack, making him a name to watch for 2015 and beyond.
Lastly, Clint Dempsey has the most international experience, and the most consistent scoring touch, for the United States in the attacking third. His inclusion is a given barring injury, though his position in the new 4-3-3 is yet to be determined. In Brazil, Dempsey served as a striker, though he plays better in a more reserved role. His role in the new American system should be an interesting development moving forward.
As stated at the beginning of this article, each of these names is a complete hypothetical, though there certainly is more than enough evidence to make a case for each of them. The vagaries of soccer development will surely see some of these names fall off the radar before the summer of 2015, while others that are currently unknown will rise to prominence. There is no doubt, however, that change is in the offing and, though not on the level of the Copa America or Euro tournaments, the Gold Cup is the surest indicator of the core that Jürgen Klinsmann is looking to develop moving forward towards the World Cup in Russia.
Appendix — The Missing
Obviously, there are notable names that have been left off this roster, for various reasons. Besler, at 27 already and with a World Cup under his belt, is a known commodity and would gain relatively little from a runout against CONCACAF minnows, especially with the Copa America in 2016 looming.
Johansson and Boyd, in this scenario, are victims of change. Boyd’s game is a holdup, target forward, of which the United States already has two in Altidore and Zardes. With forwards being at more of a premium with the added winger dimension, Boyd must stay behind. Johansson is still hurt and will need time to re-acclimate to professional soccer. Furthermore, his skillset makes him a bit of ‘tweener in the 4-3-3, not quite speedy enough to be on the wings at the highest level, not physical enough to be a target forward.
The emergence of Green and Gyau push Johansson out of the squad for 2015. Geoff Cameron has been hampered both by injury and by his place at a middling club in Stoke City. Like Johansson, Cameron needs the summer of 2015 to get fit, to find his groove, and compete for a place in the Copa America squad. Finally, Harry Shipp is left off due to his need to find consistency. Since starting off his rookie campaign with a flurry of goals and assists, Shipp has fallen off drastically. Shipp needs to get over the wall he has hit, and 2015 will give him plenty of time to take the next step.