For 20 months, the US men's national team has been fixated on the future.
Focus on tomorrow has taken precedence over today and hope has been dangled in front of us since Oct. 10, 2017, when the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup following a disastrous loss at Trinidad and Tobago.
As days turned to weeks and weeks to months, the failure gave the federation nearly two years off between competitive matches. For better or for worse, it was difficult to ignore the rearview mirror when staring through the apparently-desolate windshield. So, the USMNT spent 2018 looking ahead while 32 nations prepared for a World Cup. A number of players received international debuts and the old guard was given some time away from the program as new faces emerged.
On Tuesday, for the first time in 20 months, the United States will play a competitive match. On Tuesday, for the first time in 20 months, literal winners and losers matter more than moral victories or progress made. It is also the first competitive match in charge for Gregg Berhalter.
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Here are some key areas to watch for as the USMNT takes on Guyana (10 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, UDN) in Group D.
Gold Cup first-choice XI?
What is Berhalter's strongest XI for the Gold Cup? It's a unique situation and one that may not be replicated moving forward, with a handful of notable injury absences in Tyler Adams, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin. Also: how many USMNT squads in the near future will feature neither Tim Weah nor Josh Sargent?
As Berhalter is fond of pointing out, every squad is a unique reflection of that moment in time. The image reflected by the squad in this moment of time is not without cracks and marks Berhalter's first true adversity since taking over.
All that said, the 23 players selected and fit have the requisite quality to compete. What will the starting XI look like?
If fit, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie are expected to start in central midfield, with Jozy Altidore up top, Zack Steffen in goal, Nick Lima at right back and Matt Miazga in central defense. Are they all good to go? Who makes up the rest of the XI?
Attacking cohesion and confidence
The USMNT has gone 266 minutes since scoring, dating back to Pulisic's fourth-minute goal against Chile in March. In their two Gold Cup tuneups, the USMNT was entirely unconvincing, losing 1-0 to Jamaica and 3-0 to Venezuela. Pulisic played in neither and Altidore was restricted to just 45 minutes, but the attack was insipid. Nothing looked convincing, whether it was movement, touches or decisions.
On paper, Guyana is the USMNT's weakest opponent in the group stage at the Gold Cup. If they still struggle to create and score, the problem will be impossible to ignore. Or, if they get the ball rolling with an early goal and coast to a convincing win, it would do wonders for the collective confidence.
Setting the tempo from deep
If Guyana defend in a low-block, the onus falls on the defenders and deepest midfielder to play efficient and meaningful passes. The more Miazga and Aaron Long/Walker Zimmerman can play directly to Pulisic and McKennie, the better. The more Michael Bradley or Wil Trapp can skip Pulisic/McKennie when the center of the pitch is oversaturated with defenders and find the wingers or striker, the better. The less Altidore or Zardes gets frustrated and drops into the midfield to remember what taking a touch or two is like, the better.
Patient build-up and lackluster possession are vastly different in execution, but the former can lapse into the latter real quick. It's an extra touch, an extra beat when executing a decision. Margin for error will be wider against Guyana than in their next two group games against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. That margin will continue to shrink as the tournament rolls on.
What can the wingers do?
Berhalter has not gotten great wing play from his team in recent matches. Between Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, Tyler Boyd and Jonathan Lewis, can two step forward and nail down a starting spot for the rest of the tournament?
It goes hand-in-hand with setting the tempo from deep. As opposing teams look to suffocate the middle of the field, the wingers become increasingly vital.