By any measure, Bruce Arena’s 23-man group for this CONCACAF Gold Cup’s group stage was almost universally underwhelming. They needed an 88th minute goal against Nicaragua to go up 3-0 just to win their group, one that should have been fairly routine to win. So Bruce Arena, faced with the dilemma of winning the tournament versus learning more about new players who could fill out future rosters, will make his full allotment of six changes for the knockout stage. He’ll be bringing in regulars such as Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey to replace some of the younger and fringe players like Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe and Dom Dwyer that dominated the group stage makeup.
In total, Howard, Altidore, Bradley and Dempsey as well as Darlington Nagbe and Jesse Gonzalez enter for Roldan, Rowe and Dwyer as well as Alejandro Bedoya (wife giving birth), Brad Guzan and Sean Johnson. So the replacements aren’t completely dominated by the establishment but that seems to be Arena’s plan.
These players are coming in to help settle a team that certainly needs it, but with the tournament as wide open as it is and no one really impressing in a major way, did Arena need to make all of these changes, especially bringing in players that have nothing left to prove vis-a-vis a World Cup?
Was it the way the U.S. struggled to find any rhythm or form against Panama and the minnows from Martinique that forced Arena’s hand? Probably. They were as lackluster a pair of performances as the team has had in Bruce Arena’s second stint. Was this planned from the start? Arena likely figured that with an easy group slate he could leave his big guns at home and bring them in when the going gets tougher. And maybe if they impressed more than expected, he wouldn’t have to make as many of the changes he will end up making. That certainly didn’t happen.
But even if this group impressed more than it did and played better than it did, it seemed that Arena was going to make these changes anyway to ensure the USMNT’s ability to win the tournament. That’s all fine and good, and it’s within his right to do under the unusual Gold Cup rules. However, despite their poor group stage performances, there were signs and reasons to believe the present group of U.S. players could steadily improve even further, which wouldn’t merit the wholesale changes that are coming. Certainly for players like Dom Dwyer, Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris, their chances at impressing Bruce Arena certainly go down, or not at all in Dwyer’s case, when Jozy Altidore is in camp. Same goes for the likes of Dax McCarty and Kelyn Rowe, both of whom certainly improved from their first group stage starts to their second when Michael Bradley is training with you.
In many ways, the best way to see whether players can add something different to World Cup qualifying and World Cup squads is by playing them in pressure situations like the knockout stage of a Gold Cup without the fear of roster changes hanging over their heads. And while winning the tournament is always the ultimate goal, there are still plenty of reasons to believe that this squad, with a few alterations, would be the best in the tournament by a fair margin and still be odds-on favorites to win. On Wednesday, it’s conceivable that Bruce Arena could start a full seven or eight of his best XI in a watered down Gold Cup; one which seemingly was the best chance left to evaluate players and their merits for future squad inclusion.
Arena’s roster decisions are more than certainly justified after a poorer than expected group stage, but the merits of using the group stage of this tournament to experiment with selection and formations then seem a touch off when so many first XI players are then brought into the mix. The only games left where Arena can reasonably experiment and view players going forward are post-qualifying friendlies, and though there will probably be a good chunk of them (assuming the U.S. qualifies for the World Cup), they won’t have the stakes that a Gold Cup knockout stage game will have. To best see what Dom Dwyer, Dax McCarty and others have in their tanks, they should be given the chance to prove themselves when the stakes are at its highest, even if it means maybe leaving some of your strongest players at home or on the bench.
Since Arena is bringing in his big guns, they’re all likely going to be starting on Wednesday and beyond, leaving some players who may still have something to prove waiting for substitution opportunities at best. These players will almost certainly help the U.S. in their quest to win the tournament, but many players in this initial group of 23 still have something to prove, and while they didn’t prove it in the group stage, they should have at least been given a chance to prove it in the knockout stage.
22 of the 23 players in this squad played during the group stage. Quite a few proved why they aren’t going to be getting future call-ups. A few probably cemented spots they already had. But the knockout stage of this Gold Cup is best for those players who were in between with some still to prove and more to show. And there are a few of those players who won’t get a chance to prove themselves with the big guns back.
They’ll certainly help win the tournament, and that’s always wonderful, but it may not answer important squad selection questions that many wanted answered going into the tournament. They, and Bruce Arena, could easily leave this month with those questions still unanswered.