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MINNEAPOLIS — It has been 616 days since the United States men’s national team last played a competitive match. Six hundred and sixteen long, often drab, sometimes dysfunctional days since we could really care about a USMNT result.
And that, more than anything, is reason No. 1 to watch the USMNT’s 2019 Gold Cup campaign, which kicks off Tuesday night against Guyana (10 ET, FS1) at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The Gold Cup is not the most important soccer tournament this summer. It will not be the most-watched. But it is Gregg Berhalter’s first as U.S. boss. It will deliver the USMNT’s first meaningful matches since that infamous night in Trinidad. And it may even clue us in a bit on where the program is headed.
Because the first several months of the Berhalter era have unearthed a variety of enticing questions. Now it’s time for some definitive answers – or at least tentative, instructive ones. And the search for them guides us through our nine reasons to watch the U.S. at this summer’s CONCACAF championship.
1. A USMNT coach with a plan
The last USMNT coach saddled with long-term expectations was Jurgen Klinsmann, whose nonsensical freewheeling undermined many of his positive qualities. Berhalter, in this stylistic sense, is a polar opposite. He’s notorious for his attention to detail. There’s extensive rationale behind everything he does, from tightly scripted practices to tactical intricacies. And what his team has done, through six games, has been very legible.
The primary U.S. system, in overly simplistic terms, has been a 4-3-3 that becomes a 4-4-2 without the ball and, sometimes, a 3-2-4-1 with it.
There is possession and rhythm and control. There is selective pressing. There are attacking “progressions” that determine where and how Berhalter’s players attempt to, as he terms it, “disorganize” a defense. Roles can vary by game or within one, or based on personnel, but many of the core principles Berhalter has been teaching persist regardless.
The implementation is very much still a work in progress. The system is anything but indomitable. But it exists. It’s part of a years-long process. This is the first time we’ve been able to write that about a USMNT in some time.
2. The Pulisic Question
There are 11 clearly defined positions in Berhalter’s system. Again, responsibilities can and do evolve within them. But when Berhalter names a starting lineup, for example, Christian Pulisic is either a winger or a No. 10. He might drift wide and interchange more than other 10s would. But there’s no specialized, Pulisic-specific position.
Which leads us to a question that, more than three years on from his U.S. debut, remains unanswered: What is Pulisic’s best position with the national team? Wide or central?
Berhalter’s initial, temporary answer has been central. He most recently gave it to ESPN. “My idea is that he'll play central but move wide sometimes,” he said of the newly minted Chelsea attacker. “We want him in between the lines, being able to attack players, go at players, and then help other people get goalscoring opportunities. We think he can do it from a central position better.
“But,” Berhalter acknowledged, “that may not be the case when we actually see him.” This week’s camp in Minnesota is only Pulisic’s second under Berhalter. The head coach is open to admitting his preliminary hypothesis was wrong.
There’s also the possibility that the answer is opponent- and game plan-dependent. There’s a school of thought – one to which I subscribe – that Pulisic is more effective as a winger against inferior, bus-parking opponents, but better centrally as a counterattacking catalyst against superior foes.
The Gold Cup is our first opportunity to see how Pulisic’s role develops under the first USMNT boss who’ll have him for a significant amount of time.
3. Adjusting without Adams
Some would argue that Pulisic is no longer the USMNT’s best player. Nor even its best under-21 player. That’s how highly regarded Tyler Adams is after a breakout half-year at RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.
And if he’s the best, he’s the most important. He was earmarked for a “hybrid” or “inverted” right back role that Berhalter planned to use to overload opponents and give their midfielders one too many passing lanes to plug.
That is, until Adams was ruled out of the tournament with a groin injury. His absence strains an already-thin player pool. Adjusting without him will be one of Berhalter’s first major challenges as head coach. We broke down the dilemma here.
4. Weston McKennie’s first international tournament
One option we didn’t mention in our sans-Adams breakdown: Weston McKennie played just about every outfield position in a rocky second full season at Schalke.
At this time last year, McKennie’s stock was soaring. He broke into the Bundesliga as a teen, scored on his U.S. debut, and elicited proclamations of “future national team captain” at a stateside camp last May. But his past 12 months have been strange. He was shuttled around the field, to wherever a relegation-threatened Schalke needed him. He played under multiple coaches, surrounded by a rotating cast of teammates.
The dysfunction clearly didn’t facilitate personal growth. The question is whether the situation impeded growth, or whether McKennie’s development just stagnated a bit on its own.
With a U.S. midfield place alongside Pulisic and Michael Bradley seemingly his, a first international tournament represents a fantastic opportunity for McKennie to reiterate how promising his future is.
5. A (re-)proving ground for Bradley and Jozy
Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley became the two most vilified U.S. players after the World Cup qualifying debacle.
We won’t rehash that debate, but will say this: Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley should remain sure-fire U.S. starters – at the 9 and 6, respectively – and be two of the five most impactful American players at the 2019 Gold Cup.
And while that says a bit about the current state of the USMNT, it says more about two accomplished veterans who’ve been unfairly scapegoated. Altidore is still 29. Bradley is 31, and said Thursday that, “with the way that I live, with the way that I train, how I take care of myself, I feel like my best years are still coming.” Even if they aren’t, he’s still the team’s best defensive midfielder. Altidore is its best striker. None of this should be a source of debate.
6. An introduction to Tyler Boyd
USMNT fans are always in search of something fresh and new. There’s a certain excitement that comes with the unknown. At the 2019 Gold Cup, that unknown is Tyler Boyd, a New Zealand-born, SoCal-raised winger with a smooth Kiwi accent who represented his birth country at youth levels. (He moved back to New Zealand after spending the first 10 years of his life in the States, but still visits America every year.)
Boyd hadn’t met a single one of his current international teammates when he filed for a one-time FIFA change of association from New Zealand to the U.S. But the 24-year-old already feels comfortable. His first USMNT roommates have been Paul Arriola and Daniel Lovitz. Neither of them, he confirmed to Yahoo Sports last week, has snored.
Boyd is soaking up Berhalter’s system. He told Yahoo Sports that his initial phone conversations with Berhalter turned to tactics pretty early on. Boyd enjoys the strategic side of the game, and likes Berhalter’s attention to detail. He’s a probable starter on Tuesday night.
7. Will a dominant center back emerge?
John Brooks is the USMNT’s best center back. But he’s missing the Gold Cup due to injury. That leaves two starting spots to some combination of Aaron Long, Matt Miazga and Walker Zimmerman. (Or Tim Ream if he isn’t playing left back.) USMNT fans should hope at least one stakes claim to a place in Berhalter’s first-choice 11 alongside Brooks going forward. Long is the best bet.
8. A big summer for Zack Steffen
Zack Steffen is the clear U.S. No. 1. Since earning that label, he’s been all over the map, from mistake-prone to magnificent to, more often than not, fine-but-definitely-not-prime-age-Tim-Howard.
After the Gold Cup, Steffen will be off to Man City, and then loaned out, reportedly to Fortuna Dusseldorf. His first European adventure, as a teenage first-time pro, didn’t work out. He’ll embark on the second as a completely different man. But a strong Gold Cup performance to buoy the journey certainly wouldn’t hurt.
9. A first no-asterisks Gold Cup title since 2007?
The last time the U.S. won a Gold Cup over a Mexican A-team was on that Benny Feilhaber goal:
The two American titles since have come in Confederations Cup summers, 2013 and 2017. So the U.S. hasn’t truly been atop North and Central America, apart from one great World Cup qualifying run, in 12 years. Ending the drought would be a dream start to Berhalter’s tenure.
10. A new era in CONCACAF
The U.S. isn’t the only regional power rebuilding. Mexico hired Tata Martino to replace Juan Carlos Osorio. The experienced Argentine is a perfect 4-0 in friendlies since taking over. El Tri is a relatively clear Gold Cup favorite.
But it’s a nuevo Mexico, just like the American team who’ll challenge it. Yes, it’s led by names even casual fans will recognize – Andres Guardado, Guillermo Ochoa, Hector Moreno, and others. But there are more you know that’ll be absent. Carlos Vela turned down a call-up. Chicharito did as well due to the birth of his son. Hector Herrera followed suit for unrelated reasons. Miguel Layun and 23-year-old Hirving “Chucky” Lozano are injured.
The attacking reins, therefore, will be left to Raul Jimenez and a host of less-experienced youngsters. This, to some extent, is a theme throughout CONCACAF. Some stars of Gold Cups past are either past their primes or absent. Keylor Navas is a good example. The new names to know instead are ones like Alphonso Davies (Canada) and Leon Bailey (Jamaica).
Costa Rica is still a threat, especially with Joel Campbell fit and firing for the first time in what seems like forever. As is back-to-back finalist Jamaica. The U.S. and Mexico are still the big two. But with both in transition, the tournament is ripe for a surprise.
2019 Gold Cup groups
Group A: Mexico, Canada, Cuba, Martinique
Group B: Costa Rica, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bermuda
Group C: Jamaica, Honduras, Curacao, El Salvador
Group D: USA, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana
2019 Gold Cup group stage schedule
All times p.m. and ET
Saturday, June 15
Canada vs. Martinique | 7:30, FS2, Univision
Mexico vs. Cuba | 10, FS2, Univision
Sunday, June 16
Haiti vs. Bermuda | 4, FS2, Univision
Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua | 8:30, FS1, Univision
Monday, June 17
Curacao vs. El Salvador | 7, FS1, Univision Deportes Network
Jamaica vs. Honduras | 9:30, FS1, UniMas
Tuesday, June 18
Panama vs. Trinidad and Tobago | 7:30, FS1, UniMas
USA vs. Guyana, | 10, FS1, UniMas
Wednesday, June 19
Cuba vs. Martinique | 8, FS1, Univision Deportes Network
Mexico vs. Canada | 10:30, FS1, Univision
Thursday, June 20
Nicaragua vs. Haiti | 7, FS1, UniMas
Costa Rica vs. Bermuda | 9:30, FS1, UniMas
Friday, June 21
El Salvador vs. Jamaica | 7, FS1, Univision Deportes Network
Honduras vs. Curacao | 9:30, FS1, UniMas
Saturday, June 22
Guyana vs. Panama | 5:30, FS1, Univision
USA vs. Trinidad and Tobago | 8, FS1, Univision
Sunday, June 23
Canada vs. Cuba | 6, FS2, Univision,
Martinique vs. Mexico | 8:30, FS1, Univision
Monday, June 24
Bermuda vs. Nicaragua | 6:30, FS1, UniMas
Haiti vs. Costa Rica | 9, FS1, UniMas
Tuesday, June 25
Jamaica vs. Curacao | 8, FS1, UniMas
Honduras vs. El Salvador | 10:30, FS1, UniMas
Wednesday, June 26
Trinidad and Tobago vs. Guyana | 6:30, FS1, UniMas
Panama vs. USA | 9, FS1, UniMas
Knockout round schedule
Saturday, June 29
Quarterfinal 1 | 8, FS1, Univision
Quarterfinal 2 | 11, FS1, Univision
Sunday, June 30
Quarterfinal 1 | 5:30, FS1, Univision
Quarterfinal 2 | 8:30, FS1, Univision
Tuesday, July 2
Semifinal 1 | 10, FS1, Univision
Wednesday, July 3
Semifinal | 9, FS1, Univision
Sunday, July 7
Final | 10:15, FS1, Univision
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