Arena won't learn more about U.S. player pool by calling in reinforcements
PHILADELPHIA -- From the outset of this Gold Cup, it was the plan of U.S men's national team manager Bruce Arena to add six players to his roster at the conclusion of the group stage. The tournament rules allow it, and Arena took full advantage.
All of which seems kind of a shame.
The U.S. manager has brought in the Toronto FC duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. He's also added Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey, Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard and FC Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.
The infusion of experience is considerable. Out of those six, four of them -- Bradley, Altidore, Dempsey and Howard -- have more than 100 caps apiece. Nagbe has been a steady presence for the U.S. throughout 2017. Only Gonzalez, who just recently had his one-time switch of affiliation from Mexico to the U.S. approved by FIFA, can be considered a prospect.
The unlucky six who were sent back to their clubs were really an unlucky three. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and his partner Beatrice are expecting their second child this week, so his departure was long planned. It was also understood that goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Sean Johnson would be sent back to Atlanta United and New York City FC, respectively. That left Kelyn Rowe, Cristian Roldan and Dom Dwyer to be sent home.
It's peculiar in that Rowe and Dwyer have shown well over the course of the past three weeks, with each player scoring a goal and contributing to the attack in other ways. Roldan's situation is easier to understand, as he had his moments of struggle against Martinique, though he did take good care of the ball. But for these three players, it's clear that their playing time would have been severely limited going forward, considering who was called up. That is true especially for Dwyer given that Dempsey and Altidore will chew up the bulk of the forward minutes, while Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris have the ability to play out wide if needed.
"All of [the decisions] are difficult because all of the players did well," Arena told reporters. "I thought Dom, Cristian and Kelyn did very well, and I told them that. They're players that we're obviously going to continue to keep an eye on, and continue to obviously have them in the program."
He added, "It's a difficult tournament, and when you play so many less experienced and younger players together, it's difficult. It's not easy. Probably the perfect way to do that is to mix in more veteran players. But we wanted to give everyone an opportunity, and that's the way we decided to do it, and I think they came through with passing grades, all of them."
It's an odd rule to be sure, one that I can't recall being replicated anywhere else in the world. Given how crowded the international calendar tends to get in the summer, as well as the fact that MLS shuts down for only the group stage, it's understandable that CONCACAF would want to allow some flexibility to teams in order to get the best players on display. But at the same time, it seems to undermine the integrity of the competition by allowing such drastic changes.
To be clear, the U.S. isn't doing anything wrong here, but it still seems unfortunate, in a way, for Arena to bring in reinforcements, and not just for the players sent home. With essentially five starters added, it's almost as if a different team will take the field for Wednesday's quarterfinal, and playing time will be much harder to come by for those group-stage players who remain.
Without question, the U.S. looked far from convincing during the group stage. It played poorly in a 1-1 draw with Panama and was given a fright by unheralded Martinique in a 3-2 win, before looking more like its old self in a 3-0 victory over Nicaragua.
But the whole point of this tournament, for the U.S. at any rate, was to give some playing time to some heretofore bit-part -- and, in some cases, no-part -- players. During the group stage, Arena did that and then some, giving starts to 22 out of the 23 players on the roster. So why not let them finish the job? Why not see how these players can do in a knockout game possessing a very different kind of pressure from the group stage?
Granted, the winner of this Gold Cup gets one foot in the door toward qualifying for the Confederations Cup, but that assumes there will be a Confederations Cup in four years' time. Considering Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup in the winter, holding the tournament in December 2021 is a no-go with the game's power brokers in Europe. Ditto for holding it in the searing summer heat. There is talk of using the 2021 Club World Cup as a dry run for the World Cup instead.
So what does the U.S. really gain by bringing in five new starters? Arena highlighted the quintet's experience, and it obviously gives the U.S. a much better chance of winning the tournament. The competition for places will certainly heat up. But it also seems unlikely that Arena will acquire more data about his player pool as opposed to if he had kept his roster the same.
That is precisely the approach Mexico has taken. Certainly, it's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison given that El Tri's participation in this year's Confederations Cup added an extra competition to their calendar. But manager Juan Carlos Osorio is giving his inexperienced side -- which had a stumble of its own in tying Jamaica 0-0 -- the chance to win the tournament, as opposed to making changes.
"I think this group deserves the opportunity to continue [in the Gold Cup] and experience this tournament and the great responsibility that representing Mexico is," said Osorio.
He added, "[I feel] happy, very optimistic about the group. We're continuing to consolidate a very good group of talented, young players that are the future of Mexican football. That factor, for me personally, is the most gratifying and what I enjoy most in life."
As it stands now, a hypothetical U.S. lineup for Wednesday's quarterfinal could consist entirely of players who were on the roster for the World Cup qualifiers last June. So it looks like for Arena, the search for that kind of gratification Osorio referred to has been put on hold.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.