Could Gold Cup Serve as Career Catalyst for U.S. Players?
A solid performance in a CONCACAF Gold Cup can go a long way for a would-be World Cup hopeful–just ask current U.S. National Team forward Chris Wondolowski.
The two-time MLS Golden Boot winner appeared in just one international game in the year prior to the 2013 Gold Cup. Upon being selected to the 2013 Gold Cup roster, the California native caught fire–scoring five goals in a two-game span against Belize and Cuba.
His remarkable run of form catapulted him from an international bit player to one of just 23 players that made the United States roster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. There are plenty of fringe U.S. National team players hoping to follow Wondolowski’s blueprint and punch their ticket to Russia next summer with a run of good form throughout next month.
This summer’s Gold Cup tournament is particularly unique due to the fact that it is taking place just one year prior to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Historically, the United States uses the Gold Cup that takes place one year prior to the World Cup to get a closer look at players that might have slipped through the cracks or that have been buried on the international depth chart for any number of reasons. The pot of gold awaiting the tournament champion at the end of the rainbow notoriously contains very little.
By winning the tournament a country is only guaranteed a spot in a playoff game in which the winner gets into the Confederations Cup. With such a small incentive for teams to play their core national teamers, it makes sense to use this summer’s Gold Cup as an opportunity to evaluate fringe players and potentially overlooked contributors.
United States manager Bruce Arena signaled his willingness to give untested players an opportunity to impress when he submitted his preliminary 40-man roster for the upcoming Gold Cup. Arena called in a whopping nine players who do not have a single international appearance, and he selected 11 players that have 10 or less international cups.
A number of these players are likely to be cut from the team when squads have to be trimmed to 23 players but those unproven players that do make the team have a fantastic opportunity to prove that they have something unique that Bruce Arena’s squad should not be without.
Making the 23-man roster for this Gold Cup is akin to finding a golden ticket in a candy bar wrapper. With one year and change left until the World Cup kicks off in Russia, there are preciously few tangible opportunities for underutilized players to display why they belong on the 23-man squad. After the Gold Cup, the United States will be shifting focus to its World Cup qualification efforts.
With qualification for the World Cup hanging in the balance, Arena will almost certainly opt to deploy players that he’s seen before and knows he can trust. Fringe players will likely not factor into these games at all. This upcoming Gold Cup is the only way they can prove to their manager that they deserve to make the trip abroad next summer.
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Among the players jockeying for position this July, three uncapped players stand out as particularly interesting prospects: Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, New York City FC winger/midfielder Tommy McNamara and Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan.
Dwyer was born and raised in England but has made his hay playing professionally in MLS since 2012. He recently became eligible to represent the United States earlier this year after navigating the process to become an American citizen. The Sporting KC forward has been among the most prolific goal scorers in MLS over the past three seasons, tallying 55 goals since the start of 2014.
The 26-year-old is a manager’s dream striker–he’s a hard-nosed player that has the ability to finish with either foot and has a knack for finding space in the box on set pieces. His MLS track record speaks for itself, and it would not be surprising at all to see Dwyer emerge as a mainstay for the U.S. if he makes the most out of this particular opportunity.
Tommy McNamara is another name that should sound familiar to MLS fans. The 26-year-old has spent the last three seasons playing for NYCFC, and he’s demonstrated a flair for the dramatic with his knack for scoring late goals. The New York native has developed a bit of a cult following since he was selected by NYCFC in the 2014 Expansion Draft. McNamara’s ability to analyze the game on-the-fly and find his way into the right place at the right time could make him a prime candidate to make next summer’s World Cup team as an impact substitute that could instantly spark some offense late in a match.
Perhaps with an eye to the future, Bruce Arena called in 22-year-old Cristian Roldan, who had a breakout 2016 campaign in Seattle. Roldan is a midfielder who has an impeccably well-rounded game. He has the ability to be a true box-to-box midfielder and has demonstrated the ability to contribute offensively as well. The former U20 International has demonstrated fantastic vision and passing and when you couple that with his ample defensive skillset, it is easy to get excited about his future in a U.S. jersey.
It seems likely that this particular Gold Cup tournament will not have a significant bearing on the team’s entrenched starters due to the realization that Arena has less to gain by playing his established players. The U.S. boss has already had plenty of opportunities to evaluate his top guys, and playing them heavily in this tournament seems foolish as it would likely expose some of them to injury.
As the World Cup qualification cycle nears its close, the United States cannot afford to be without one of their premier options due to them getting injured in a largely meaningless tournament. With so many hungry, unproven players on the cusp of breaking out into international stardom, don’t be surprised if we look back to this summer’s Gold Cup as a catalyst for a few U.S. players on their way to starring roles in next year’s World Cup.