The 2021 Gold Cup officially begins this weekend. The biennial championship of Concacaf boasts a lot of the familiar faces as well as a few newcomers, and as usual features the best teams at something less than their full strength.
That is, again, as usual. What is a touch unusual is just how understrength the US men’s national team happens to be compared to, say, their rivals from Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada. While those three teams are missing key players here and there, US head coach Gregg Berhalter has chosen to go down the depth chart at virtually every single position. You could make a very plausible case that there is not a single first-XI player in this US squad, and I don’t think we’ve seen a Gold Cup roster of that sort from any country in the region since way back in 2009, when then-US head coach Bob Bradley assembled a similarly experimental crew.
The primary goal now, as it was then, isn’t necessarily to win the tournament. That would be an unadulterated good thing, obviously — winning is a habit. But in this summer’s tournament the goal is less about winning the whole damn thing and more about building depth throughout the player pool ahead of World Cup qualifying, which is now less than two months away (and full disclosure: I am starting to have frequent nightmares about qualifiers. That’s typical for me, but these have instilled a heightened sense of dread given the events of Couva four years ago).
Nothing else that happens in 2021, not the Nations League title nor any particular outcome in this Gold Cup, matters at all in comparison to World Cup qualifying. It is not something lopsided like “Qualifiers are 99% and the other stuff is a measly little 1%;” it is “Qualifiers 100% and everything else the USMNT does in 2021 is in service of that goal.” If the US fail in World Cup qualifying once again, nobody will remember last month’s win over Mexico or anything that happens here in the month ahead, because they will not matter. At all.
Here are the two main things that Berhalter has decided to do with the Gold Cup roster in order to give the US have the best chance of leaving past World Cup qualifying failures in the past:
1) Make sure the best US players are fit and in form with their clubs. That explains why the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie et al aren’t here. They’re coming off of long and draining seasons at the very top of the game and need down time, while simultaneously most of them are fighting for playing time in the season to come.
With European preseasons opening, broadly speaking, now or next week, the USMNT's World Cup qualifying effort benefits more from letting them get the rest they need for as long as possible, and then to get as much preseason time as is possible in order to win those fights for playing time. Taking McKennie to the Gold Cup would be stupid if it meant he started the season sixth on Juventus’s central midfield depth chart (and to be honest, I wouldn’t be shocked if that would’ve been the case).
The players themselves benefit more from that and the USMNT as a whole benefits more from that than either would from getting five or six more games together over the next few weeks.
2) Collect the guys in the next tier and put them in a situation where some who have been secondary or tertiary parts are now asked to be leaders, and where others who haven’t even been on the radar, really, are potential answers to glaring questions (more on that in a bit). While sorting them on an individual level — Berhalter surely has his own depth chart — he’ll also be asking them to execute on the possession-based system with pressing principles the US have used during his tenure.
Showing individual competency within that framework is Step 1, and that’s what I’m going to focus on below.
But don’t forget Step 2, which is matching or bettering the intensity of the opposition. Haiti, Martinique and Canada aren’t just happy to be there, and the same will go for whoever the US meet in the knockout rounds should they make it that far.
Which is to say that I don’t think Berhalter will be all that impressed with anybody’s individual competency if it happens within the larger picture of losing to Jamaica, Panama or the like in a game that matters.
OK that’s a long preamble. Bearing the above in mind, here are the things I’m most focused on in order from most important to least:
The Second Six
Jackson Yueill has held this spot for most of the past two years, right up until he seems to have lost it with a borderline disastrous performance against Honduras in the Nations League semifinal. Yueill had been broadly “fine” to “pretty good” in his previous caps, the first of which came just before the 2019 Gold Cup, and acquitted himself well against Canada in the must-win second-leg of a Nations League home-and-home series.
In between that match and the poor showing against Honduras, Yueill had repeatedly bossed games with his passing ability against a series of lesser foes, spraying diagonals and finding feet in the half-spaces with regularity. He wasn’t Prime Michael Bradley or anything, but he was brave about getting on the ball and a difference-maker in the way he distributed it, and if you look back at all the friendlies over the past couple of years you’ll notice that the US, in general, trended downward whenever Yueill was subbed out. They just didn’t rip apart opposing low blocks with as much efficiency.
That doesn’t mean a lot, since they were friendlies against lesser teams. But it does indicate that nobody else then in the pool was showing the ability to get the US into the attacking positions that Yueill did, and since getting into those attacking spots was leading to commanding wins over the likes of Costa Rica and El Salvador and those are two of the teams in World Cup qualifying, it feels pretty relevant.
Yueill is on this roster, but I think the bigger test this coming month is less about seeing if Yueill can get his confidence back and more about seeing if one of the other guys in the mix for this spot can do the regista stuff he was doing before his confidence was apparently shattered.
Kellyn Acosta, who seems to have jumped Yueill in the d-mid pecking order and is thus the default Second Six behind Tyler Adams, will get a chance at this role at some point in the group stage. Acosta has always been more of a rangy box-to-box midfielder than a tempo-setting regista, but he’s actually played as the latter in each of Colorado’s two most recent outings, a 1-1 draw with Seattle and a 2-0 win on Wednesday night over a previously surging Minnesota side.
Acosta has the passing range to do the job, and has acquitted himself well in big games before. That includes the Nations League final win over Mexico (though he was in much more of a double pivot in that game), as well as massive World Cup qualifiers from the 2018 cycle. He will not be intimidated by the ask even if it’s not a job he’s done a ton throughout his career.
The same can be said, on that last part, for Portland’s Eryk Williamson. He’s spent much more time as a No. 8 than as a No. 6, and my guess is he’ll spend more time as a No. 8 than as a No. 6 in this tournament as well. But he was a revelation in his limited minutes as a regista this spring for Portland — a regista with the ability and willingness to drive the game forward off the dribble and bend defenses with more than just his passing — and it feels like a lot of what he showed in that game could translate.
The final name in the mix here is young Gianluca Busio, who has settled in as the starting regista for Sporting KC, one of the very best teams in the league. His passing is a weapon, as is his engine, but I still harbor significant doubts about Busio’s ability to do the defensive work at the international level.
He’s good for one of these at the MLS level in basically every game:
He loses vital challenges. He forgets to check his shoulder. He gets beat and stays beat. He doesn't track runners even when they're headed to the most valuable real estate on the field.
In other words he is a talented young player still learning the position. He is clearly getting better at managing each of the defensive responsibilities I listed (especially winning challenges), but he's got a ways to go to get to international caliber. I just wish there was a U-20 World Cup for him to take part in this summer.
Anyway, the more I’ve thought about this in recent weeks the more certain I’ve become that this is the most important question to answer. Adams is probably the most important player in the roster when it comes to the delta between the baseline US performance when he’s out there and when he isn’t.
A couple of commanding performances from Acosta, or a continuation of what we saw this spring from Williamson, or Busio showing my concerns are unnecessary, or even just Yueill returning to the level we saw from him against Canada two years ago? Any and all of those would be welcome.
The Starting No. 9
The second-best thing that could happen this summer is for Daryl Dike to show that the post-Nations League friendly win over Costa Rica wasn’t a mirage, and that Concacaf backlines have no prayer against him. Dike ran over, around and through the Ticos, bullying them both on and off the ball and in the process creating space for both himself and his teammates.
Even if Dike doesn’t pull that off in the Gold Cup, I am not anywhere near as worried about the US’s No. 9 situation as many are. Josh Sargent has turned into something of a punching bag among certain parts of the fanbase, but I thought his play at the Nations League deserved a goal and regardless we’re talking about a talented 21-year-old with damn near 5000 Bundesliga minutes — most of them out of position. Gyasi Zardes, meanwhile, has been a reliable goalscorer against Concacaf foes, and Jordan Siebatcheu looked to be the same. The US center forward situation is fine.
But I do think that Dike has it in him to bring it to a higher level. There is a reason that Sargent is being mentioned as a transfer target in the $7-to-10 million range this summer, while Dike’s valued at approximately twice that (give or take). Teams don’t just pay for productivity; they pay for ceiling.
The other part of this, which almost nobody talks about enough, is set pieces. Dike isn’t a dominant goalscoring threat on set pieces, but that’s because he invariably draws the opponent’s best defender and usually at least one other helper. Even in the rough-and-rugged English Championship, teams were terrified of him in dead-ball situations; he has massive off-ball gravity.
Set pieces overall have become a much more important part of the game over the past 10 years thanks to the nerds who broke Denmark via FC Midtjylland. But the effect is even more pronounced in the international game where sophisticated attacking play via possession is far less common than it is at the club level.
I just don’t think there are any certainties in the US center back rotation. Aaron Long is hurt; John Brooks, as superb as he was this year in the Bundesliga and as excellent as he was in the Nations League, has a checkered past against Concacaf foes; Mark McKenzie had a very questionable Nations League showing; Matt Miazga hasn’t developed into the type of top-tier center back I thought he was destined to become.
Young Chris Richards might. I think he’s probably got to be considered the highest-upside center back currently in the pool, but like most of the rest of the Euro contingent, he’s in preseason right now. Again: it is better for him to win a job with a club team (I’m hoping he’ll be a central piece with Hoffenheim rather than a bit player with Bayern Munich) than it is for him to be with the US this month.
Not so for Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson. I think both of these guys have a chance to earn prominent places on Berhalter’s depth chart for a bunch of obvious reasons: both check every physical box you could want from an international defender; both are better and braver distributors of the ball than most realize; both have significant regional experience in the Concacaf Champions League. There will be no awe factor for either of these guys when facing the region’s best with damn near everything on the line.
If you combine the above with a strong Gold Cup showing — again, there are no certainties in this US pool at center back — but four or five assured performances together could go a long way toward giving Berhalter the depth and flexibility he’ll need along the backline to steer the US to Qatar.