The 60-man Gold Cup rosters dropped Friday morning. There were a lot of familiar names, and a lot of somewhat unfamiliar ones, and the fact that USA coach Gregg Berhalter is obviously not bringing his first team to this tournament kind of makes the whole thing more fun. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns at play here, and that’s kind of awesome.
So let’s look at the four things about this roster that caught my eye.
Ayo Akinola was born in Detroit but grew up in Canada. He’s a citizen of both countries, though had repped the US exclusively at the youth level. And he was prolific for both the US U-17s and US U-20s.
Despite how prolific he was, Akinola was never precisely a centerpiece of those US teams, and actually fell out of then-US U-20 head coach Tab Ramos’s plans ahead of the 2019 U-20 World Cup. He was one of the last cuts.
At the same time, Akinola was struggling to get on the field for his club side, Toronto FC. His prolific goalscoring as a winger in the youth ranks wasn’t translating, and he lacked the playmaking nous to bring anything else to the table out wide. And that is when the transition to center forward began.
I don’t think anyone really saw it coming, but … damn. He’s real good:
Akinola, who's roughly the same age as Daryl Dike, Josh Sargent and Jonathan David (more on that in a second!), burst onto the scene last year as a pure, channel-running No. 9 and scored at a higher rate in MLS than Dike did. He then got a USMNT call-up in a friendly and scored there, as well.
Then … he accepted a Canada call-up. He didn’t play (he was ill all winter), but it turns out that accepting the call-up for Canada’s January camp was a tell, and the kid appears ready to commit to playing for the country where he was raised rather than the country of his birth.
I get it. David and Cyle Larin are the first-choice strikers in Canada’s current 3-5-2, with Vancouver’s Lucas Cavallini as the primary back-up. That’s a better group than the US can currently boast, but the difference is that Cavallini’s approaching 30 and David is more of a second striker than a true No. 9. So while the path is crowded at the moment, I would wager that there’s more playing time to be won over the course of the next decade for Canada than there is for the US.
That’s not to say Akinola can’t be better than Sargent, Dike, Jordan Siebatcheu Pefok or anyone else coming through the ranks for the US. He might already be! Akinola scored at a higher rate in MLS than Dike did last year, remember, and it’s not like Sargent is a sure thing. Same with Siebatcheu, and same with the other young US strikers on this Gold Cup preliminary roster: the likes of Mason Toye, Ricardo Pepi and Cade Cowell.
But from a “where is there going to be more playing time available?” perspective, I really do understand Canada as a better landing spot for him. And given that the US hadn’t really prioritized him over the past few years until his breakout season, I completely understand how he didn’t feel compelled to stay with the US.
He’d have to file a one-time switch to represent Canada this summer, by the way. And once that’s filed, that’s that. It’s a one-time switch and there’s no going back.
I really hope it works out for him.
Rubin, like Akinola, was a one-time star of the US youth national team programs. Unlike Akinola, he didn’t have his breakout season at the age of 20, and unlike Akinola, he nonetheless remained in the USMNT plans. Rubin, who is now 25, was capped seven times for the US from 2014 through 2018, playing mostly as a center forward or a winger.
He got those seven caps despite the fact that, entering this season, he only scored four top-flight goals. The productivity just wasn’t there, and given the rise of the likes of Dike, Sargent, Pefok and others, it seemed a good bet that Rubin would file a one-time switch to play for Guatemala. There would be more playing time for him there.
But then 2021 happened. Rubin has been brilliant for Real Salt Lake, finally living up to his potential as a fox-in-the-box center forward who also does the dirty work defensively and links play a bit. At the same time, Guatemala flamed out in World Cup qualifying -- they didn’t make it to the Octagonal. And so it doesn’t make much sense for Rubin to file that switch and commit to Los Chapines long-term.
I still think it’s a longshot that Rubin becomes a core piece of this US team, and if he 1) makes the Gold Cup roster, and 2) plays, he won’t be able to file a one-time switch anymore. The door will be shut and he will be cap-tied forever.
But this is probably his best shot to push his way into the mix for a World Cup. Nobody has run away with the No. 9 job for the US, so what happens if Rubin goes to the Gold Cup camp and outplays the competition? What happens if he scores a couple of goals in the group stage? What happens if he gets into the starting lineup for the knockouts and keeps scoring?
I’m not sure that’s the exact slice of the multiverse we’re in, but I do know it’s a multiverse that exists. Rubin is really, really good at finding soft spots in the defense and popping up in the right spots in the box. He’s clever about letting his teammates create gaps, and then ruthless about exploiting them.
I love a good redemption arc. Fingers crossed that’s what we’re seeing with Rubin.
Nyeman — a 17-year-old, Liberia-born, D.C. United homegrown central midfielder -- has been one of my favorite prospects to keep an eye on over the past several years. Any assessment of when he’d be ready to help the US at any age group, however, came with caveats about where he was in the citizenship process.
Good news, everyone!
I wrote about Nyeman a month back, and highly recommend you click through and watch those clips. He's a special talent.
That said, I’d be shocked if we saw him on this summer’s final roster. He’s not ready for that yet.
Nyeman is one of 13 teenagers on this 60-man roster, which gives you a good idea of the long view Berhalter is taking toward developing the pool, as well as where he sees talent. The complete list:
- Julian Araujo (19, LA Galaxy)
- Cole Bassett (19, Colorado Rapids)
- George Bello (19, Atlanta United)
- Gianluca Busio (19, Sporting KC)
- Johnny Cardoso (19, Internacional)
- Justin Che (17, FC Dallas)
- Caden Clark (18, New York Red Bulls)
- Cade Cowell (17, San Jose Earthquakes)
- Jonathan Gomez (17, Louisville City)
- Moses Nyeman (17, D.C. United)
- Kevin Paredes (18, D.C. United)
- Ricardo Pepi (18, FC Dallas)
- Tanner Tessmann (19, FC Dallas)
I wrote yesterday how disappointed I am that there was no U-20 World Cup this year, and obviously that disappointment is compounded by the US failing to qualify for the Olympics. Many/most — all? -- of those guys would’ve played in one of those tournaments or the other, and neither is on the table. And I think the vast majority of these guys will not be on the final Gold Cup roster, either.
Still, it's good to see them on this list, and an indication of who to watch out for in Gold Cups to come.