National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT: Which MLS players can capitalize on Gold Cup opportunity?

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The likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Ricardo Pepi have gone on vacation ahead of European clubs’ preseason gatherings. Yet the trophy-hunting continues for the US men’s national team.

With their Concacaf Nations League title defense complete, the Yanks now look to do the same with the Gold Cup, starting with Saturday’s Group A opener vs. Jamaica at Chicago Fire FC’s Soldier Field. A squad heavy with MLSers has the opportunity to state their credentials for inclusion in once-and-future head coach Gregg Berhalter’s plans going forward.

Who is best poised to seize this chance? Let’s dive in.

In the modern era, players with dual-national eligibility don’t usually handle a second nation’s approach like Morris did with Canada. The 21-year-old’s father was born in Montréal, and with Morris producing some of the best box-to-box midfield work in MLS this season, CanMNT boss John Herdman made a concerted effort to recruit him into Les Rouges’ camp.

Canada are a rising force and could probably offer Morris a more direct line to regular minutes. And given his age, the Crew homegrown had every reason to take his time, maximize his options and perhaps leverage the scenario to grab the attention of USMNT leadership.

He did not.

“The young lad, he understands the opportunity here in Canada, but his heart’s with the US,” Herdman said earlier this month. “He's not quite ready to make a commitment to Canada. He wants to explore the opportunity with the US. I'll probably see him cap-tied if he’s selected to the Gold Cup, or he wants to see what the new coach for the US there has in plan for him… Aidan spoke very eloquently about his experience with the US from the age of 15.”

That’s a potent display of loyalty from Morris, an elite prospect dating back to his clutch work in MLS Cup 2020 in place of Darlington Nagbe after the latter contracted COVID-19 just days before the final. He’s taken a major step forward under the tutelage of new Columbus head coach Wilfried Nancy, who arrived, ironically, from CF Montréal and made Morris a centerpiece of his positional-play system, adding passing range and tactical intellect to the Fort Lauderdale, Florida native’s ferocious bite and range.

Can Morris become the next Yunus Musah or Tyler Adams? We’ll learn more in the coming month.

With Bryan Reynolds, John Tolkin and DeAndre Yedlin in the mix, and Julian Gressel also capable of filling the role, this USMNT roster is stacked at fullback. Jones is nevertheless one of the most interesting options on either corner for interim head coach B.J. Callaghan.

A self-made standout in MLS, he’s been grinding resolutely to earn his international opportunities since the Revs drafted him out of Michigan State in 2019, helping New England become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. He’s quick, aggressive and equally comfortable defending 1v1 in space as surging forward to join the attack, where he’s tabbed 6g/17a in 117 MLS regular-season appearances.

Naturally right-footed, Jones put in the work to grow comfortable on the left side and now offers a reliable option on both flanks, which is much easier said than done at the top level. He turns 26 on Saturday, which makes him older than most of his competitors in the current camp and perhaps less enticing for European clubs shopping the North American market – but the flip side of that is that he should be ready to hit the ground running wherever he may land.

It feels like we’ve been talking about Cowell as a star in the making for many years now, which is in large part a reflection of how ahead of the curve he was developmentally when he signed a Quakes homegrown deal at just 15 years and 102 days of age back in 2019. There have been some fits and starts in the time since, yet this season truly does feel like a jumping-off point.

Cowell was one of the USMNT’s top performers in their January camp friendly vs. Serbia and led the US U-20 national team with three goals in their run to the quarterfinals at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina a few weeks ago. Given the chance to focus on an inverted left winger role for both club and country, he now has clarity of purpose that was at times lacking in the past.

The next step is to hone those skills further, become a more clinical finisher and add the wrinkles necessary to unlock top-tier defenses that don’t give him the chance to rampage into transition spaces – like the savvy Uruguay side who ended the U-20s’ trophy hopes earlier this month.

“It definitely was an experience I’ll always remember forever and it’s awesome to be with that group for about two years,” Cowell told reporters of his U-20s experience this week. “So preparing for that, and to really go step by step from qualification to the very first camp, it’s all the little things in the lead-up to that tournament, and I thought we did really well.

“It should have ended better but that’s how it goes usually, sometimes, and I thought it was really good. I’ll always remember that and it was good to get some good confidence, some good goals in there.”

Overseas scouts are watching him closely. Can Cowell use the Gold Cup to prove to them that he’s ready for Europe?

That European ticket so many players on this roster are hunting? Sands got his after helping the Cityzens win MLS Cup 2021, joining Rangers FC on an 18-month loan that began brightly but fizzled after managerial changes and uneven displays at the Glasgow giants, where he played mostly at center back despite being more comfortable in deep midfield.

With NYCFC undergoing a generational shift that made him even more valuable to them than before, Sands elected to cut short his time in Scotland and rejoin his hometown club, signing a new contract in the process and embracing a leadership role. That’s included some less-enjoyable aspects of the responsibility, like being accosted by home supporters upset with the Pigeons’ mediocre form earlier this season.

Now 22, the onetime teen phenom could become a foundational pillar for City as they look forward to their long-awaited new stadium in Queens. Or perhaps he’ll gather himself for another adventure overseas. Either way, his intelligence and versatility make for a relatively rare skill set to offer to the USMNT, where he was a mainstay of the ‘21 Gold Cup title run and started a World Cup qualifier before plummeting out of the picture last year.

Sands can – perhaps even must – stake his claim for a bigger role immediately.

Sure, he’ll be 32 by the time the ‘26 World Cup rolls around, which for certain myopic quarters of the USMNT fanbase means he’s a no-go, end of story. But the naturalized German-American has a specialization that few in the player pool can match: He can ping pinpoint crosses and set pieces like few others in North America.

In fact, if you look at his MLS career in its entirety, he’s done so with the quality and consistency of a Landon Donovan MLS MVP contender – and he’s actually become more well-rounded and versatile under the influence of Vanni Sartini in Vancouver:

Gressel did what he's best at in his USMNT debut back in January, delivering a delightful ball to the head of Brandon Vazquez for the Yanks’ goal vs. Serbia. Observers who’ve been around for any length of time will remember the value of specialists like this, from Fernando Clavijo to Preki to Alan Gordon and more.

Gressel’s status for the Gold Cup has been complicated by the imminent arrival of his and his wife’s second child, so he may not be in prime position to contend for a starting role right away. Yet we suspect he’ll have a role to play in this tournament, and perhaps beyond.