The 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup isn't just about the big golden trophy on the line. It means very different things to each of the 12 teams set to take part in the competition, which kicks off Friday.
For Mexico, it's a chance to ease the disappointment of the Confederations Cup while seeing if some younger prospects are ready to emerge. For Costa Rica, it signals a clear opportunity to win a major competition for the first time. For Panama, it's time to integrate a new generation after spending the last dozen years leaning on the same nucleus of talent.
Then you have the U.S., which doesn't come into the tournament with the same pressures being faced by Mexico or the same need for some silverware Costa Rica has. No, for the Americans, this Gold Cup is about injecting some fresh options into the talent pool and finding a crop of players not only capable of helping in World Cup qualifying, but potentially down the road in Russia at the 2018 World Cup.
Bruce Arena's revival of the U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign has given him the luxury of going into the Gold Cup with the ability to experiment and to test out some players who have either never played for the U.S. in official competition, or who haven't done so in some time. The recent friendly win against Ghana featured several of these new faces, and the mixture of talent produced a very promising display, albeit in a friendly against a below-strength Ghanaian side.
What should be at the top of Arena's agenda at this Gold Cup is rejuvenating the U.S. midfield depth chart. Kyle Beckerman has faded out of sight, as you would expect from someone in their mid-30s, while Jermaine Jones is finding it tougher and tougher to stay healthy as a 35-year-old. His bold proclamations of believing he's still the best the U.S. talent pool has at his position are admirable, but the reality is Arena needs to find younger options in order to avoid having to rely on Jones.
That isn't to say there isn't a place for any new options in their 30s. Dax McCarty turned 30 in April, but is very much a player who could play his way into the void left by Beckerman's exit and Jones' looming departure.
"I've followed (McCarty) for years. He's a good player. When I was in MLS I always tried to get him in trades, was never successful at it," Arena said. "I just think he's a really good player, a team player, a good experienced player at this point in his career, a good communicator on the field, very respected by his teammates, and knows how to do his job. And I think that's critically important."
Then you have the attacking midfield position, where Sacha Kljestan has regressed and Benny Feilhaber failed to grab hold of the opportunity Arena gave him. Lee Nguyen doesn't appear to be in Arena's plans. It likely isn't a coincidence that all three of those midfielders are 30 or older, and with Arena already likely to carry 34-year-old Clint Dempsey to the World Cup, he probably would prefer to avoid bringing a midfield stacked with 30-somethings to Russia.
Luckily for Arena, there is talent on the horizon, younger options who look promising, and who will have this Gold Cup to impress him and earn future opportunities to fill the void being left by an aging generation of previous options.
"At this point you look and you project out on it and say, 'Are there players here who can continue with the full team and help us in World Cup qualifying in 2017?" Arena said. "And hopefully compete for a position in the World Cup squad in 2018."
With that in mind, here are five players who could enjoy breakout performances at the Gold Cup:
With the exception of Christian Pulisic, there may not be a young American player who has seen his stock rise more in the national team picture in 2017 than Acosta. The FC Dallas midfielder came into the year in excellent form, as he showed in CONCACAF Champions League action. The 21-year-old then performed well coming off the bench in qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago before earning a start against Mexico in Estadio Azteca.
Acosta's showing against El Tri had to be an encouraging one for Arena, who is looking hard for reliable box-to-box midfield options to take over for Jones, who is coming to the tail-end of his national team career. This Gold Cup should offer Acosta a perfect opportunity to showcase his poise, attacking qualities and impressive engine. His showing against Ghana last week suggests he should shine in the group stage and beyond.
It was a bit surprising when Bruce Arena left all of his established attacking midfield options off the Gold Cup roster, but the Ghana friendly revealed who he has in mind for the role, and Joe Corona played like a player who is ready to handle the responsibility.
Corona, 26, is no stranger to the Gold Cup, having started in the 2013 Gold Cup final won by the U.S. over Panama. Back then, Corona was more of an attack-minded midfielder who worked mostly as a winger. Today, Corona has rounded out his game as a central midfielder by playing in a deeper central role for Club Tijuana. That has helped him sharpen the defensive aspect of his game, but it hasn't cost him the creativity and skill he first displayed for the U.S. as part of its Under-23 national team. If Corona can build on his showing against Ghana by being an effective creator in the group stage, then Arena just might have the luxury of not bringing in a player like Darlington Nagbe for the knockout rounds in order to allow Corona the opportunity to get to, and play in, another Gold Cup final.
After his headline-making national team debut, Dwyer has suddenly gone from not even on the U.S. radar to potentially being the team's go-to striker at the Gold Cup.
It really shouldn't be a surprise considering the success he has enjoyed in MLS during his career. Given where some of the other American forwards on the Gold Cup squad are in terms of form, Dwyer has the quality to be a Golden Boot contender at the tournament if the U.S. midfield can find good chemistry. The Sporting Kansas City forward makes well-timed runs, is tireless and tenacious, and isn't afraid to get physical, which will serve him well as teams like Panama try to unsettle him. U.S. fans who don't follow MLS are in for a surprise, because the 26-year-old can finish well and already appears to be clicking with his new teammates.
Of the players on this list, Matt Miazga is probably the biggest long shot to earn regular minutes at the Gold Cup. But as a highly regarded 21-year-old center back prospect, Miazga is a player who could really emerge at the tournament if he can play his way into some playing time.
Arena has two veteran central defenders in Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, as well as a MLS Defender of the Year in Matt Hedges, but Miazga's upside makes him an intriguing prospect for Arena to take a closer look at. The last time we saw Miazga in tournament play, he was starring for the U.S. at the 2015 Under-20 World Cup. The competition for playing time is much tougher this time around, but based on Arena's praise for the Chelsea defender, we shouldn't be surprised if he gets an opportunity in the coming weeks.
Much like Corona, Paul Arriola comes in off a stellar season for Club Tijuana which saw him play a more defensive-minded role than he had previously in his career. And like Corona, Arriola has seen his game sharpened by a regular starting role with the Xolos.
A more attack-minded one-way player earlier in his career, Arriola spent much of the past season as a right wingback for Club Tijuana, an experience that helped him become more of a two-way player with the engine to handle major minutes. The fact that Arena trusted the 22-year-old Arriola enough to start him in the attack against Mexico in June's qualifier at Estadio Azteca shows just how far he has come, and how much Arena rates him. That bodes well for a major role in this summer's Gold Cup.