U.S.' Gold Cup expectations: win it all, get contributions from Acosta, Morris
Remember the 2015 Gold Cup? Yeah, me neither. Like most people who follow the United States men's national team, I've tried to put that tournament out of my brain, and for good reason. It was a D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R for the red, white and blue.
Jurgen Klinsmann's side managed to emerge from the group stage despite being outshot 36-17 in three matches against Haiti, Panama and Honduras. They went on to post a 6-0 win against an undermanned Cuba side before falling to Jamaica in the semifinals and losing to Panama in a shootout. The fourth-place finish was the team's worst result since 2000, when they lost in the quarterfinals to Colombia.
The Klinsmann Era had multiple low points; the 2015 Gold Cup was definitely one of them. But hey, this is international soccer, where a new tournament is always just around the corner. After a strong slate of qualifying results, the U.S. enter the 2017 version of the regional championship with some momentum. Goodbye Panic City: hello Nashville, Tenn., where the Americans open Group B play against Panama on July 8.
Here are eight goals Bruce Arena's side should look to accomplish during the tournament:
The Fantastic(?) Four
The Gold Cup will mark the first time Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe, Dom Dwyer and Kenny Saief appear on the same roster. The first two earned their calls due to continued success in Major League Soccer; the latter pair recently completed their transfer paperwork and are now eligible. Can one or more of the four force themselves into the World Cup picture? While the window to do so is getting smaller, the opportunity remains. Saief, who plays for Gent in Belgium, is the most unknown of the four; even Arena doesn't seem to know exactly what he's getting. "It'll be interesting to see him in camp to see how he fits in with our group," he said, which is as close as a coach will get to saying ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Coming in from the cold
Although Juan Agudelo, Matt Miazga and Gyasi Zardes aren't new to the U.S. system, various factors have kept them out of the picture in recent months. While it's doubtful that any of the trio could make a case for a starting spot on the first team, each one is still very much in the running for a place on the 23-man roster next summer. They can't make the World Cup squad at the Gold Cup, but they can certainly play themselves out of it. With less than a year to go until Russia, Arena will start tightening the player pool. If Agudelo, Miazga and Zardes aren't swimming now, they'll likely sink too deep to recover.
Is Jordan Morris an answer?
While the Seattle Sounders forward is in a better position than the three players listed above, he's far from a lock to be on the plane to Russia. After emerging under Klinsmann, the pacey forward has exactly one goal for the Stars and Stripes since Apr. 15, 2015. He's also struggled in MLS, finding the back of the net just twice in 16 games so far this season. With Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey taking three spots at the forward position, there isn't much room remaining. Morris needs to show he has more than just wheels, and he needs to do it quickly.
Acosta's Time is Now
The single most interesting positional battle in the starting XI is the one between Jermaine Jones and Kellyn Acosta. The former is past his prime, not that he'd ever admit it; the latter still has his best years ahead of him. It's the FC Dallas star's spot for the taking, but the question is: When will it happen? At the Gold Cup, Acosta will have a games to prove he can take command of the midfield. It's simple, really: control the game, organize the midfield, perhaps contribute on a free kick or two. No big deal, kid.
Eric Lichaj's big chance
Arena clearly thinks highly of the experienced right-back and planned to call Nottingham Forest's captain for the March qualifiers before a groin injury scuttled that plan. While DeAndre Yedlin is the obvious starter, there's no set backup and Lichaj, who can fill in on the left as well, has an excellent chance of making that spot his. He excels as a defender, and is the perfect player to have on the bench as a late-game option to help protect a lead. The Gold Cup should give him the opportunity to show off his abilities from the beginning of the match instead.
While there's little crossover between the U.S. first team and the squad that will take the field in Nashville vs. Panama, it's still the same red, white and blue uniforms (or whatever color and design they are these days). Arena's arrival, followed by four solid -- if not spectacular -- qualifying performances helped the U.S. get their mojo back... with a little assist from a kid named Christian. The excitement surrounding the group, which hit a nadir in 2015 and 2016, is building. Some attractive soccer, a few wins and a bit of personality over the next three weeks would do wonders to keep the sporting public interested heading into some crucial qualifiers in the fall.
Make the final...
Losing to Mexico -- a team on the rise with a seemingly unending supply of talent -- in the last match of the tournament would not be a disastrous nor embarrassing. Not reaching the final, however, would be. It's true that other teams in CONCACAF are improving, but there's still no world in which the Americans shouldn't be at least the second-best team in the region. Even on an off day, the U.S. need to be able to beat Costa Rica/Panama/Honduras/whoever in front of their home crowd. Get to the final and then see what happens.
... and win
In March, the U.S. U-20 squad won the CONCACAF Championship, beating Honduras on penalty kicks. In one sense, it didn't matter because they'd already achieved their number one goal: qualifying for the World Cup. On the other, the whole point of playing is to win. And winning begets winning. After the U-20 victory, head coach Tab Ramos talked about players needing to learn how to win. It's a culture thing, an expectation game, an ability to raise your play when it matters most. While those are a bunch of cliches, that doesn't necessarily make them untrue. If the U.S. can't show up in the final against Mexico, what hope do they have in a World Cup Round of 16?
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.