They call this an off-year Gold Cup. Every other edition of the biennial championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean falls in the same summer as several significant World Cup qualifiers. And so the big teams in the region, the United States men’s national team included, tend to dilute their teams for the regional championship.
As expected, U.S. head coach Bruce Arena has done the same. More or less. Rather than a B-team, he has called up what you might grade a B+ roster. His 23-man team, which was announced Sunday but will be finalized Tuesday, includes both a slew of younger and inexperienced players and veterans who have been light on playing time a year out from the World Cup in Russia.
“It’s a good roster with a nice blend of experienced, veteran players and a good group of newcomers as well,” Arena said. “There’s good balance at every position, we can play a number of ways. … They have an opportunity to make a statement.”
Following a friendly with Ghana in East Hartford, Conn., on the first day of July, the United States opens its group stage against Panama in Nashville, Tenn., on July 8. On July 12 and 15, it plays Martinique and Nicaragua in Tampa and Cleveland, respectively.
The tournament, which won’t count very heavily for most of the team’s loyal fans, gives Arena the chance to try out younger or untested players in a competitive environment while providing meaningful minutes to A-team players who haven’t featured much recently.
“There are some guys like Matt Besler, Dax McCarty and a little bit of the same case with Graham Zusi — they’ve been with us most of the year and haven’t had extensive minutes,” Arena said. “I think there’s a great opportunity for these guys to lock down roster positions for our [World Cup Qualifiers] in September and October as well. It’s good to have them.”
Arena’s team has an average cap total of just 16, making it the second-least experienced team — by that metric — that the U.S. has brought to the Gold Cup since 2000. But that’s likely to change after the group stage. Arena called in none of his senior-team core, like the European-based Christian Pulisic, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks or Bobby Wood, opting to rest them. And he didn’t include some of his Major League Soccer stars like Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore either.
But Bradley, Howard, Pulisic, Dempsey and Altidore are all on the preliminary 40-man roster, meaning they could be drafted into the team for the knockout rounds. Arena will have a 24-hour window after the group stage concludes to make six changes and he is expected to bring in some or all of those players ahead of the quarterfinals.
“I will wait and see how the tournament develops before I make any of those decisions,” Arena said. “We clearly have a number of players that we can consider bringing in and we will do that, but we want to see how we get through group play.”
The squad includes four debutants, like the Israeli-American Gent attacking midfielder Kenny Saief — who has filed a one-time switch from the Israeli national team program. English-born striker Dom Dwyer, who has starred at Sporting Kansas City, became a U.S. citizen in March. Midfielders Kelyn Rowe and Cristian Roldan earned calls for their standout play with the New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders, respectively. All four are 26 years old or younger.
The Gold Cup held the year before the World Cup has historically helped new players break into the senior team for the big tournament and establish strong careers thereafter. Previously, DaMarcus Beasley, Pablo Mastroeni, Dempsey, Stuart Holden and Oguchi Onyewu, among others, first asserted themselves in the off-year Gold Cup.
“We want to continue to build on what we started in January [camp] and improve the program,” Arena said. “Hopefully we find other players that can compete for spots for the camps in September and October, and then players that will continue to move forward and can possibly envision being part of our team in Russia in 2018.”
But the objective is just as much to end a trophy drought in this tournament. Arch-rivals Mexico have won three of the last four editions, wedged around the USA’s most recent victory in 2013. The Americans are 51-8-8 all-time in the tournament but only have five continental titles to Mexico’s 10.
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC)
DEFENDERS: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Kenny Saief (Gent), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
FORWARDS: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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