After earning eight points from four CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, you can understand why Bruce Arena is looking at this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup a little differently than he might have if things hadn't gone so well.
The task of helping the U.S. national team climb out of the hole created by an 0-2 start in the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying was accomplished, and while there remains work to be done to secure a place at the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. is sitting in excellent position heading toward the second half of the Hex.
This will allow Arena to treat the Gold Cup as a bit of a proving ground in 2017, an event where he can test out youngsters looking to break into the first team and give some veterans their chance to show they belong higher up the depth chart.
What we aren't going to see is the U.S. team's European-based stars. There'll be no Christian Pulisic, who is taking a well-deserved rest as he prepares for life under a new manager at Borussia Dortmund. No John Brooks, as he joins new club Wolfsburg after a record-setting transfer for an American. No Geoff Cameron, after his impressive showing in the June qualifiers. No Fabian Johnson or Bobby Wood, who can both use a long rest after battling injuries and knocks over the past year.
Now it's time to look at some new faces, including some very promising youngsters who just might wind up joining Arena in Russia a year from now. Then there are some veterans enjoying career runs of form who have earned looks, even if they may still be long shots to be factors on a full-strength U.S. team.
Does that mean we won't see any top U.S. players at the Gold Cup this summer? The ability to change six players after the group stages gives Arena the luxury of calling in the cavalry to make a run at the trophy, so even though we'll most likely see an inexperienced squad to open the tournament, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and one of Arena's experienced goalkeepers should be among the reinforcements added for a cup run.
With rosters set to be announced in a week, here is how we see the U.S. Gold Cup squad looking for this summer:
GROUP STAGE: Joe Bendik, Bill Hamid, Jesse Gonzalez
KNOCKOUT-ROUND REPLACEMENT: Brad Guzan
OUTLOOK: Arena should let Guzan focus on his move to Atlanta United and Tim Howard could use a rest from the national team this summer, which means a golden opportunity for some younger options. Hamid has been playing well and, most importantly, staying healthy for a good stretch. He has long been seen as a contender to the throne, only to have injuries repeatedly derail his quest. This summer is a perfect opportunity for him to stake his claim to a World Cup spot next year.
Gonzalez is eligible to play for Mexico, but is ready to accept the Gold Cup call if it comes. Bendik edges out Sean Johnson in this projection and you can definitely argue Bendik has been one of the best goalkeepers in MLS this season.
Guzan as a knockout-round starter makes plenty of sense, though if Hamid shines, and other areas of need arise, Arena could leave Guzan in Atlanta.
GROUP STAGE: Steven Birnbaum, Greg Garza, Matt Hedges, Eric Lichaj, Matt Miazga, Justin Morrow, Matt Polster, Jonathan Spector.
KNOCKOUT-ROUND REPLACEMENT: Omar Gonzalez
OUTLOOK: The center-back position is loaded with options, making this group a tough one to whittle down. Matt Besler didn't play in the June qualifiers and could easily be part of this group ahead of Birnbaum, but Arena could leave Besler for a knockout-round option if needed. Graham Zusi is another intriguing option as he continues his evolution as a right back.
Miazga is a very interesting prospect, coming off a good season with Dutch side Vitesse, and preparing for his next loan destination. The former New York Red Bulls defender is definitely a player who could play his way into the World Cup conversation over the next year if he continues to develop. The Gold Cup would be an excellent stage to see how much he has grown since leaving MLS for Europe.
Hedges should have a big role on this squad as a starter and defensive leader, though Spector has been outstanding with Orlando City since arriving this winter.
At fullback, Lichaj has long been seen as someone deserving of a longer look by the national team.
Gonzalez makes plenty of sense as a knockout-round addition. He has experience in the Gold Cup, and has been in outstanding form over the past year.
GROUP STAGE: Paul Arriola, Joe Corona, Chris Pontius, Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe, Kenny Saief, Wil Trapp, Gyasi Zardes.
KNOCKOUT-ROUND REPLACEMENT: Michael Bradley, Kellyn Acosta.
OUTLOOK: Arriola made the most of a surprise start against Mexico in the June qualifier and should be one of the few June contributors who pulls double duty in the Gold Cup group stage. The Club Tijuana midfielder is quietly making a good case for an eventual World Cup place, and this Gold Cup should be a very important opportunity to show he's ready for an increased role.
So why no Acosta considering he's young and looks like a starter of the future? Central midfield has several promising young options, and Acosta has already shown Arena that he's a special talent. He doesn't need to prove a thing in the group stage. The same can't be said for players like Roldan, Trapp and Corona, who are all battling for a chance to climb the central-midfielder rankings.
Saief, meanwhile, has been on the radar for some time, and the winger can help give the U.S. another left-footed option in a pool that isn't exactly stocked with them.
Bradley and Acosta would be excellent knockout-round options, though Arena could be tempted to add a player like Darlington Nagbe instead of Acosta, particularly if one of Roldan, Corona or Trapp really steps up in the group stage.
GROUP STAGE: Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer, Jordan Morris, CJ Sapong.
KNOCKOUT-ROUND REPLACEMENT: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey.
OUTLOOK: A need for more target-forward options should give Sapong a real chance of being a part of Arena's squad, while Dwyer is a compelling forward option who combines power and speed well. Arena knows Dwyer well, and the newly-minted U.S. citizen would be a good fit in the starting lineup in this group.
Though he didn't make this group, don't be surprised if Arena gives Chris Wondolowski a group-stage look. The veteran striker may not be a popular option among U.S. fans, but he can certainly score goals against the level of competition the U.S. will see in the group stage.
Altidore is a no-brainer in the knockout rounds if the U.S. wants to make a serious run at the Gold Cup title. Dempsey would be a strong choice as well, but Arena could be tempted to give him an extended rest this summer.
PROJECTED GROUP-STAGE STARTING XI
PROJECTED KNOCKOUT-ROUND STARTING XI