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10 Questions for the USMNT after the Gold Cup & heading into the fall

After an up and down Gold Cup tournament, the United States national team will look ahead to the fall where it will play in friendlies and make its Nations League debut. ASN's Brian Sciaretta looks at some questions the team faces for the rest of 2019. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
July 10, 2019
7:00 AM
WITH THE GOLD CUP over, the United States national team will now head into the fall as the next stage of the cycle gets underway. The Gold Cup and the friendlies that preceded it answered some questions but also raised others. The fall friendlies and the Nations League will be the next occasion learn more about the team and its players.

The Gold Cup final was a disappointment but the tournament wasn’t a failure for Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. team. There were positives such as getting Tyler Adams and Duane Holmes into the program, Aaron Long and Reggie Cannon showed they were ready for a role on the team, and a clear young core is emerging.

This is still a team rebuilding from a missed World Cup and from a generation of players that did not produce nearly enough national team-level talent. It was always going to be a slow burn to work through the issues. Mexico was always the favorite to win the Gold Cup and it deserved its title. The U.S. walks away, however, with a few more useful pieces to the puzzle.

Coming into the tournament, Berhalter knew had key players like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen in his first choice. He also knew Tyler Adams, DeAndre Yedlin, and John Brooks were also in the mix despite not being available. But now he leaves knowing Long, Cannon, and Arriola can be useful in the full 23. Perhaps the emergence of Cannon gives comfort to the notion Adams is part of the solution in the midfield. Just with this alone, it’s a healthy chunk of a solid core to build from.

But here 10 questions to follow the remainder of 2019 as the team looks to progress from the Gold Cup.

1) What’s the forward depth chart?

The forward depth chart is not great at the moment. Gyasi Zardes struggled at the Gold Cup. Jozy Altidore was strong at times and helped with his hold up play, but his injury history makes it tough for Berhalter to depend on him.

There isn’t a steady group of forwards in the pool right now and Berhalter has to do his best to make it as productive as possible. Josh Sargent still hasn’t played much at the professional level (and lacked reserve games in the second half of last season). Bobby Wood is coming off two bad seasons and has an uncertain future. Andrija Novakovich is unproven at the international level and is unsettled with his club. Christian Ramirez is a potential option to be brought back. Other options are players who are still merely prospects: Jeremy Ebobisse, Jesus Ferreira, and Sebastian Soto. Tim Weah is also walking into a very good club but will he play and is he more of a winger?

Perhaps the start of the upcoming European season or the remainder of the current MLS season will see players make progress. But this will be a big question for Berhalter and the national team.

2) Who are the central defense pairings?

Central defense was one of the biggest strengths for the U.S. team at the Gold Cup. Aaron Long played extremely well and Matt Miazga was also strong in the semifinal and the final. Walker Zimmerman also made a positive impact on the team.

The most accomplished central defender, however, in the player pool is John Brooks and he was injured for the tournament. The U.S. team did not necessarily miss him at the Gold Cup but he is likely to rejoin the team when healthy. But that raises a lot of questions? Who is the top pairing? Who is the second pairing? Is Omar Gonazalez really an option moving forward? And most importantly, can Brooks play to his potential consistently for the U.S. team? That has not always been the case.

Second, there are several younger and Olympic eligible American central defenders in Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Justen Glad, Miles Robinson, Austin Trusty who could be knocking on the door soon of the full team. Will they put pressure on the more established group?

3) Where will Tyler Adams play?

Tyler Adams is one of the best American players but his only outing under Berhalter came as a right back – compared with his natural central midfield position. But right back is pretty stable at the moment. DeAndre Yedlin will soon return from his surgery, Reggie Cannon played very well in the later rounds, and Nick Lima showed in the tournament that he is useful.

Central midfield, however, showed its limitations. Wil Trapp did not play much and Michael Bradley was uneven (albeit better in the final). To be fair, Berhalter did not seem married to the idea of Adams as a right back but right now it seems pretty clear Adams needs to be in the midfield – where he is a Champions League-level player. So is that where he will play for the team later in the year?

4) Further integration of Boyd and Holmes?

Tyler Boyd and Duane Holmes were both brought into the team over the past six weeks and in fairness to them, neither had a lot of time to integrate. Holmes was injured for the Gold Cup and Boyd did not play after the quarterfinals.

But both players play important positions where the U.S. team lacks depth – Boyd at wing and Holmes as a creative central player who can also add defensive bite. Will Berhalter take the time in the fall to give both players a longer opportunity to adjust into his team?

5) Can Cannon build off Gold Cup?

Reggie Cannon was one the most surprising success stories from the Gold Cup. The Dallas right back played inspired soccer as the tournament grew and was one of the team’s best players in the final. Coming into the tournament, little was expected of Cannon since he only made the team after being an injury replacement.

But Cannon looks like a clear option to be in the first choice 23 and a likely backup to DeAndre Yedlin. But now the youngster needs to show growth and the ability to build off his Gold Cup tournament. He has the athleticism and defensive ability to succeed – even if his crossing sometimes is off. Like many American players of his age, Cannon has potential but it is just that, potential. The next few months should give him confidence moving forward.

6) What are the left back options right now?

Like forward, the left back positions are far from ideal. Tim Ream was serviceable at the Gold Cup but he is more of a central defender who plays the left back position mostly staying back. Nearing 32, how much longer can Ream keep it up? Daniel Lovitz can hit some nice balls out of the back but is he really an option as the team moves further into the cycle?

A lot of other options also have question marks. Nick Lima has played left back for San Jose and maybe he can slide over there for the national team. Antonee Robinson has played with the team plays a lot in the Championship and maybe he an use the U-23 team to transition more effectively into the full team? Will Chris Gloster get 2.Bundesliga minutes and eventually become an option?

Once again, left back continues to be a weak spot for the team and will be difficult for Berhalter to manage. The most likely bet is that Ream keeps the job for now, but when will other options clearly emerge?

7) Which youngsters are on the horizon?

When Dave Sarachan was the interim head coach, he introduced a lot of young players. Berhalter has come in and reintroduced a lot of the veterans like Bradley, Ream, Altidore, and Gonzalez while keeping the top young players like Pulisic, McKennie and Adams in the picture – as well as a few others like Djordje Mihailovic and Reggie Cannon who were injury replacements.

Moving forward, which young players will make cases to push out some of the existing Gold Cup roster players? That will come down to club performances, of course. But it will be interesting to see who makes a case over the next few months and if given a chance by Berhalter, who seizes the opportunity and stays with the team?

The players most likely to watch are Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, Paxton Pomykal, Jackson Yueill, Sebastian Soto.

8) Juggling the Olympic team?

In the months ahead, Berhalter and Earnie Stewart will have to consider the Olympic team as well – which will be managed by Jason Kreis. The senior team will have friendlies in September and January with Nations League in October, November, and March. The U-23 team’s schedule is not set but the team will likely have camps in the fall with qualifying taking place early next year.

Qualifying for the Olympics should be taken seriously by U.S. Soccer since the opportunity for key players to play strong opponents from outside CONCACAF in FIFA competitions is rare.

It’s no secret that many of the top players currently on the national team and many of its top prospects are all Olympic eligible. There is a big overlap in players that will force U.S Soccer to prioritize their involvement.

Looking at the domestic players who are most likely to be released for Olympic qualifying regardless of when it takes place, you have U.S. national team players in Reggie Cannon, Djordje Mihailovic, and Jonathan Lewis who were all part of the Gold Cup team. Then you have key prospects who look ready for a U.S. national team callup like Paxton Pomykal and Jackson Yueill. Do all of these players now focus on the U-23 team to prepare for qualifying or do they focus on the national team if Berhalter wants to call them up?

Then there is the potential option of Olympic qualifying taking place during in an international window. If CONCACAF allows for roster augmentation (like it did with U-20 World Cup qualifying where teams could change their roster for the decisive games during the international window) does U.S soccer look to attempt to secure the release for some of the top players at the expense of the Nations League?

With the big overlap of players eligible for the U-23 Olympic team and the full national team, Berhalter, Stewart, and U-23 head coach Jason Kreis will have to make decision which players belong where and which tournaments should be prioritized

If the U-23 team successfully qualifies for the Olympics, then does U.S. Soccer make a push to release all of its top U-23 players and three overage players to push for a medal? It would make sense as part of building some much needed enthusiasm and momentum for the men’s program again.

9) What is the status of Zardes and Trapp?

Gyasi Zardes and Wil Trapp have played under Berhalter for years dating back to the Columbus Crew. Both had the benefit of knowing his system well but both struggled over the past six weeks. Zardes had two nice goals against Trinidad & Tobago but was once again let down by his touch. Trapp was too often a defensive liability and could not make up for it with his passing range. Zardes was outplayed by Altidore and Trapp was outplayed by Michael Bradley.

It raises the question of both players having roles on the team moving forward. Zardes has the benefit of a weaker group of forwards but will Berhalter continue to explore those options? If Berhalter goes with Adams in the central midfield role, that probably keeps Bradley as the backup and pushes Trapp out. Will Berhalter move towards that approach?

10) Can the team generate enthusiasm?

It has been awhile since fans have felt good about the national team. The 2014 World Cup saw it advance out of the “Group of Death” but since then there have been more downs than ups. The 2016 Copa America had three straight wins over Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador which was probably the last time people were happy about the team. The 2015 Gold Cup was very poor and the World Cup qualifying campaign was a disaster and nobody really remembers 2017 Gold Cup given the near immediate slide in World Cup qualifying right afterward. Attendance for national team games is not nearly what it once was.

The 2019 Gold Cup was a missed opportunity in that regard. The team wasn’t bad against Mexico but it still could have won the game against its rival – and didn’t. A win wasn’t going to erase the negativity but it could have helped.

It will be challenging for the team to show progress given no major tournaments are on the horizon (no, the Nations League doesn’t count but perhaps the U-23 Olympic team will) but it is important. The next generation of talent looks promising but can Berhalter make the most of it and what will it take for the team’s supporters to become optimistic once again and perhaps even grow the fanbase?

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