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Gold Cup 2021: Four major questions the USMNT need to answer

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Why this summer’s Gold Cup about much more than just winning.

Costa Rica v United States Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

In just over two month’s time, the United States men’s national team will embark on yet another World Cup qualifying attempt. With the pure and utter embarrassment of last cycle’s failure in the rearview, Gregg Berhalter’s resurgent group of talented players face the task of getting the USA back on the world’s biggest soccer stage. This summer’s Gold Cup is likely the last chance for the U.S. coaching staff to evaluate players firsthand and assess how they’ll fill out their roster for the the first round of qualifiers in September.

Heading into any major tournament, the natural instinct is to beat your chest and proclaim that first and foremost you want to win. Of course the USMNT will want to be the last team standing at the end of the Gold Cup. However this tournament offers Berhalter a unique opportunity to figure a lot of things out when it comes to his player pool. He’s already named a 59-player preliminary roster with tons of new faces we haven’t seen before. So, while it’s natural to want the team to be successful on the field, having this fresh pool of players to evaluate, offers the USMNT a chance to answer several burning questions before the ultimate test begins on September 2nd.

Here are a few questions about the USMNT’s current direction that Berhalter needs to use the Gold Cup to answer.

Who is Tyler Adams’ backup?

If there was one lesson learned during the two competitive Nations League matches against Honduras and Mexico it’s that Tyler Adams is undoubtedly the most irreplaceable player for the USMNT. His absence in the midfield was devastating for the U.S. in many factors. Most notably the ability to keep the ball under pressure and play out of tight spaces. Kellyn Acosta and Jackson Yueill unfortunately didn’t take their chances when handed the opportunity to start with the USA’s strongest lineup.

The number one task for Berhalter this summer must be to find a player who can fill in for Adams at the defensive midfield position that won’t bring the level of play down a noticeable margin. Obviously there’s not another player of Tyler Adams’ level in the player pool but there must be someone who can come in and offer some of the same characteristics if at a lesser quality.

Combing through the preliminary roster and there are a plethora of young and exciting candidates that seemingly could impress in the Gold Cup and grab that job. Frankie Amaya, Johnny Cardoso, Leon Flach, Moses Nyeman, Andres Perea and James Sands all fit the bill of that pure defensive-minded midfielder that could emerge if given the chance. Sure, none of the five are household names, but that’s what this Gold Cup should be about. Giving players with potential, who may not otherwise be given a chance with the national team, their time to shine and prove they have what it takes.

The usual suspects like Acosta and Yueill will likely make the roster, but it’s just hard to see them being the answer when they’ve already proven not to be. Hopefully one of the newcomers to camp will be or it could get really dicey in the fall when Tyler Adams isn’t able to play.

Who is the best No. 9 for The System™?

Another spot totally up for grabs is the USMNT’s starting striker position. If the striker spot was a race, currently Josh Sargent would be leading by default. He seems to be Berhalter’s guy judging from the very small sample of full-strength roster selections. Sargent’s performances this summer with the national team likely didn’t hurt his standing but he didn’t necessarily grab the job and undoubtedly make it his. With Sargent you know what you’re going to get; Smart runs off the ball, hard work and good hold-up play. What’s lacking is the final product, something a few of his competitors who will get a chance to overtake him while he enjoys his offseason may be better at.

Daryl Dike is the car in the field that isn’t leading the pack but is the fastest one in the field every lap and is continuously gaining with every mile ran. If you’re not on the Daryl Dike hype train yet, then there’s probably something wrong with you. In each of his caps for the USMNT he’s looked like a lightning rod at the spear of the attack. His physical presence alone up top is a force to be reckoned with. Pending a transfer saga blocking his availability, this Gold Cup could be his coronation for that starting striker throne. He possesses all the tools you dream about when thinking about a pure No. 9. If he can shine this summer he could very well put himself in that chair come September.

Like him or not, Gyasi Zardes is still there waiting to pounce should the options in front of him falter. If Dike’s star suddenly fades and Sargent continues to fail to find the back of the net Zardes could very well sneak back into the conversation. Especially if he comes to the Gold Cup and proves to be a fit for Berhalter’s system.

Other names that could play a factor this summer include Jozy Altidore, Nicolas Gioacchini and Jeremy Ebobisse. While it seems unlikely any of them challenge for the main starting role, if any have an outstanding tournament, who knows?

Who will push Richards and McKenzie for a starting spot?

Assuming a clean bill of health for this squad, John Brooks is one of the first names on the teamsheet for Berhalter. The big question then becomes who starts next to him? Mark McKenzie earned that honor in Nations League in lieu of Aaron Long’s season-ending Achilles injury. The Genk defender showed signs of why he’s so highly rated but also had some head-scratching moments that leaves that spot wide open for competition. Most people believe Bayern Munich’s Chris Richards is the future of the centerback position for the USMNT. Had he been healthy this summer he likely would’ve gotten those chances. It stands to reason that if he returns to full fitness he could very well get that chance when the real matches start in the fall.

Outside of those two there are a couple of interesting candidates destined for the Gold Cup that could push them for that second starting spot. While I certainly may be biased considering I cover him every week, Miles Robinson has to be at the forefront of the conversation due to his raw talent. His combination of physical dominance and pure 1-v-1 defending ability makes his ceiling incredibly high. Robinson has already earned three senior team caps and could make a huge impact in this tournament if given the starting reigns.

Defenders like Erik Palmer-Brown and Cameron Carter-Vickers are seemingly always in the conversation and on the fringe of roster selections. Both are on the preliminary roster and could finally get their chance to prove themselves should they make the final cut.

Walker Zimmerman is a player who has shined for several seasons in MLS but hasn’t really translated that success to the international level. Could this be his chance to prove he’s deserving of more responsibility?

Other possible candidates included on the preliminary roster are young phenom Justin Che, U-23 starter Henry Kessler, Auston Trusty and Donovan Pines.

Who is the next Brenden Aaronson?

The maturation of Brenden Aaronson over the past 12 months has been one of the biggest stories in U.S. Soccer. From bursting onto the scene in MLS to making the move to Red Bull Salzburg to now becoming one of the first players off the bench for Berhalter. Aaronson’s climb up the pecking order has been beautiful to see.

Refreshingly enough, there are more Aaronsons out there waiting for the chance to shine. That’s what this Gold Cup should be all about, giving these types of players that platform to prove themselves.

Three names stand out from the preliminary roster as highly-touted young players on the precipice of making the same leap as Aaronson.

Caden Clark is a very similar style of player who can play as both a two-way midfielder and quasi-attacker with the knack of always being in the right place at the right time. Despite just turning 18, he’s already being tabbed as the next to make the jump to either Salzburg or RB Leipzig.

Then there’s San Jose’s young attacker Cade Cowell who has taken MLS by storm early in 2021. The dynamic winger has buckets of raw potential with his combination of pace, intelligence and final product. There’s also a little matter of possibly being eligible for Mexico, which could give him an inside track at early looks for the USMNT.

Sporting Kansas City’s Gianluca Busio has been a much-talked about prospect for the U.S. for quite some time. Over the last 12 months he’s really started to fufill his potential. This summer could very well be his emergence onto the international scene if he’s chosen for the Gold Cup squad.

Other young prospects with very high ceilings who could be in the mix are Justin Che after his move to Bayern Munich didn’t materialize. Also Schalke’s emerging striker Matthew Hoppe is on the list and could feature if no pending transfer talks get in the way. Then there’s another young up-and-coming striker prospect like Ricardo Pepi who may have an outside chance at making the squad and impressing.