Led by Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, the U.S. national team heads into the Gold Cup with a patchwork defense and questions in midfield
U.S. national teams fans cried out for a youth movement in the wake of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, and after a 2018 filled with caps and call-ups for an assortment of teenagers and national team newcomers, the shift to a new generation of players appeared to be in full swing.
As the USMNt prepares for its first international tournament since missing the 2018 World Cup, the breaks have been pumped on that youth movement, with head coach Gregg Berhalter looking to bring back some semblence of balance. There are some youngsters, and some new faces, but also a nucleus of veterans who have made their way back into the mix after more than a year away.
Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez are back to form the leadership nucleus, while young sensations Tim Weah and Josh Sargent were left out, with Weah starring at the Under-20 World Cup and Sargent missing the cut for the Gold Cup after seeing sparse playing time for Werder Bremen in 2019.
This was still set to be a showcase Gold Cup for young American stars though, with Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams ready to embark on their first of what U.S. fans were hoping would be many tournaments as the USMNT. That was before Adams was forced out with a groin issue that adds him to a list of Americans missing the Gold Cup that includes John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and more recently Duane Holmes.
Recent pre-Gold Cup losses to Jamaica and Venezuela have shaken the confidence in Berhalter’s plan among fans, but Berhalter has remained resolute that the team has the components to do well once he brings the full squad together. Just what will that team look like when the tough matches at the Gold Cup get rolling? Here is a look at the first-choice lineup we could see Berhalter turn to, along with his full set of options:
Zack Steffen is the undisputed started for Berhalter, even with his blunder against Venezuela. His passing out of the back, and shot-stopping ability are as good as there is in the player pool, and he’ll be looking to impress in his first tournament as the national team starter.
Sean Johnson has played his way into the number two spot, edging past Ethan Horvath even before the Club Brugge goalkeeper was forced out of the Gold Cup mix with a hand injury. Johnson may be light on USMNT caps, but he has plenty of years of experience as a pro, and his passing skills have been sharpened in NYCFC’s possession-based system.
Concerns about the defense began as soon as John Brooks went down injured and Aaron Long suffered a hamstring injury shortly thereafter. Suddenly, the same unit that looked so good in March was in pieces, leaving Berhalter to dig into his depth.
Long has recovered from the hamstring injury, but will need some games to get back to his full sharpness. Berhalter needs him at his best because Long is the best one-on-one defender the team has, and his ability to handle tough strikers will help take some of the pressure off the rest of the defense.
Matt Miazga should be the other central defender, and fits well next to Long. Miazga’s passing ability gives him the edge over Walker Zimmerman, but Zimmerman is going to push Miazga for that spot, and should see some time in this tournament. Omar Gonzalez has more experience than the other central defenders, but he’s also a step slower than he was back in his prime.
The right back role will be Nick Lima’s to make the most of. Reggie Cannon replaced Tyler Adams on the roster, but Lima is the fullback with the skillset to handle the hybrid right back/defensive midfielder role Berhalter had been planning for Adams. Lima has looked good in that role before, and could be one of the breakout players in the tournament.
At left back, Tim Ream is Berhalter’s first-choice option. Ream is an excellent passer, and solid defender, but he’s also prone to the random mistakes that can lead to disaster. Ream can work well as the left central defender in a three-man defense, which we should see on occasion in the Gold Cup. Daniel Lovitz is Ream’s back-up at left back, and also a viable option at left wingback.
The most exciting aspect of the 2019 U.S. Gold Cup squad is the chance to see Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie operating as the dual number 10s in Berhalter’s 4-3-3 system.
There is an argument to be made for Pulisic being more effective on the wing, where he has thrived for Borussia Dortmund, but Berhalter has expressed a commitment to deploying Pulisic in a central role, while also giving him the freedom to interchange with the left winger at times.
Cristian Roldan has the versatility to play a variety of roles, from the 10 roles to defensive midfield, and even on the right wing in a pinch. If Berhalter changes his mind about using Pulisic as a winger then we should see Roldan slide into a starting spot. There’s also an argument to be made for starting him as the team’s defensive midfielder, especially if Michael Bradley is slow to recover from the hamstring injury that has kept him out of action in recent weeks.
Losing Duane Holmes to injury was a tough blow, with the Derby County midfielder looking good in his debut USMNT appearances.
The defensive midfield role in Berhalter’s system is a vital one, and having Bradley healthy for the later stages of the tournament will be key to any hopes the USMNT has of winning the Gold Cup. The MVP of the 2017 Gold Cup, Bradley has a track record of success in the competition, and against Mexico,
Wil Trapp hasn’t been in the best form in recent months, but his experience in Berhalter’s system has helped him maintain his place in the squad, and he should have a chance in the group stage to show he’s capable of handling the heavy workload that role requires.
Jozy Altidore has a tortured history with tournaments and the injuries that have either cost him them completely or cut them short. That said, when healthy, Altidore is still very much a force and remains the best striker in the USMNT pool by a wide margin. He stands to benefit the most if Berhalter’s system can unleash Pulisic and McKennie as playmakers.
Berhalter will need to manage Altidore’s playing time to ensure he is healthy for a deep run in the knockout rounds, which means Gyasi Zardes should see a good amount of time. Zardes’ value as Altidore’s understudy, and occasional strike partner, will likely mean he won’t be deployed as a winger, though he has shown in the past that he can contribute there as well.
Paul Arriola should be a starter on the wing, though which wing will depend on other personnel. He’s a natural right winger, but Berhalter has shown an affinity for playing him on the left, where he can cut inside naturally and interchange with Pulisic. If Berhalter gives Arriola the nod on the left, then Jordan Morris is the favorite to man the right wing. Morris has Gold Cup experience, having played in and scored the title winner in the 2017 Gold Cup final.
Berhalter’s other option is to play USMNT newcomer Tyler Boyd on the left wing, his natural role, and slotting Arriola on the right wing. This could end up the preferred setup if Morris is slow to regain sharpness after being sidelined by a recent injury. Morris also didn’t look good with the USMNT in March on the right wing, though he showed much more promise coming off the bench in the recent loss to Venezuela.
Berhalter could choose to deploy wingbacks in a variation of a 5-4-1, which could allow Arriola as a wingback, where he has the tools to thrive. Boyd could conceivably work as a left wingback, though Daniel Lovitz would be a more likely option in that setup.
Jonathan Lewis is the late-game bench option to help give the team some speed when the Americans are looking for a late goal.
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