PHILADELPHIA — When Bruce Arena called in the U.S. national team's reinforcements for the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup, the initial reaction among fans was excitement of having the coach settle on a stacked lineup to run through the opposition on the way to another title.
Though the likes of Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe will certainly help boost the U.S. team's Gold Cup chances, it doesn't mean Arena doesn't still have some serious lineup shuffling to do.
The U.S. faces El Salvador on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, just three days after beating Nicaragua on a hot day in Cleveland. A win in Philly then means a trip to Texas to play a semifinal, and a win there means a trip to California for the final. It's a brutal schedule that is going to require Arena to use every bit of his bench as he attempts to win his third Gold Cup title as U.S. coach, and first since 2005.
The veteran quintet called in for the knockout rounds should step in and form the nucleus of the U.S. lineup against El Salvador, but the supporting cast around them is unlikely to feature many players who just took part in Saturday's 3-0 win against Nicaragua, a match played in hot conditions, and one the U.S. kept pushing in to the very end as it searched for the decisive third goal to win its group.
If Arena does choose to turn to his bench for rested players, he has a half-dozen solid options capable of stepping in. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Hedges should slide into the central defense, though their struggles against Martinique could be a cause for concern against an El Salvador side with a pair of dangerous forwards in Rodolfo Zelaya and Nelson Bonilla.
At fullback, Jorge Villafana and Graham Zusi came into the tournament seen as Arena's likely first-choice pairing, but they each played 90 minutes against NIcaragua, which could open the door for Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj to step in and start. That would also leave Zusi and Villafana fresh for a potential semifinal against the winner of the Costa Rica/Panama quarterfinal.
The U.S. attack should cause problems for El Salvador. Not only because of the arrival of Altidore, Dempsey and Nagbe, but also because options like Paul Arriola, Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris played limited minutes on Saturday (and in Zardes' case, zero minutes). Bradley's presence as a defensive midfield force could give Arena the luxury to devote more numbers in advanced positions after having recently used two and three deep-lying midfielders.
Some healthy player rotation would serve the Americans well in a tournament where other participants don't have the depth, or the fresh knockout-round options the U.S. has. Mexico has been trying in vain to secure knockout-round replacements, and will thus be forced to keep riding the same squad that topped Gold Cup Group C. Costa Rica came into the tournament with a deep and talented team, but injuries have decimated the Ticos, with Rodney Wallace being the latest victim, joining Joel Campbell, Cristian Gamboa, Bryan Oviedo and Johan Venegas on the injured list.
The U.S. can't exactly overlook El Salvador completely, as the Central Americans looked capable of throwing a scare into better opponents as shown in its group stage matches against Mexico and Jamaica, but the arrivals of Howard, Bradley, Dempsey and Altidore should help the U.S. advance comfortable, even if Arena doesn't play all his top starting options on Wednesday.
What happens after Wednesday is anybody's guess but — barring an upset of epic proportions — the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup should provide plenty of opportunities for Arena to look at some different starting options, and potentially have some players grab hold of starting jobs heading into September's World Cup qualifiers.