With the upcoming World Cup qualifiers being such a priority for the U.S. national team in June, this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup was always seen as the place for some real experimentation to take place.
That was made clear when coach Bruce Arena released the 40-man preliminary roster for the Gold Cup on Saturday. It was a list with plenty of fresh MLS-based faces, while some familiar European-based players were left home.
Here is a closer look at the preliminary Gold Cup roster, and what to make of the inclusions and some surprising exclusions.
ON VACATION: Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge).
PROJECTED GOLD CUP CUTS: Bendik, Guzan, Johnson
OUTLOOK: Gonzalez is an easy pick now that he has made his intentions known. Arena would be wise to cap-tie the young goalkeeper, who is enjoying an excellent season with FC Dallas. There are several young goalkeepers establishing themselves in MLS at the moment, but Gonzalez could be the best of the bunch.
Hamid has been inconsistent at times this season, but there's no denying that when he's at his best he's as good as any goalkeeper in the pool. Johnson has settled in well with NYCFC, and his improving passing ability only helps his chances of sticking around after a lengthy national team hiatus.
Guzan might be a surprising projected Gold Cup cut, but if Howard is healthy and expected to start, then allowing Guzan to begin the integration process with his new team — Atlanta United — would make sense.
Robles has been Mr. Consistent for the Red Bulls, but the 33-year-old misses out to younger options. Tim Melia is a very deserving candidate, but lost out to Bendik as the uncapped MLS veteran was given a look.
SELECTIONS: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Jonathan Spector (Orlando City SC), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
MISSED THE CUT: Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Taylor Kemp (D.C. United), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes),
PROJECTED GOLD CUP CUTS: Polster, Morrow, Spector, Birnbaum.
OUTLOOK: Arena was pretty thorough with his selections, with Morrow and Lichaj being two players who had been long overdue for a real look. Spector has been outstanding for Orlando City and could provide some leadership, particularly in the group stages, when you would imagine someone like Gonzalez would be saved for the knockout rounds.
Garza has done well at Atlanta United, and though he has fallen behind Villafana on the USA depth chart, he could put some pressure on with a starting role at the Gold Cup. Polster is probably the biggest surprise, having impressed in a recent run of starts at right back for the Fire.
Opara's exclusion is a bit disappointing given his outstanding form, but his history of injuries is surely a big factor in the decision to leave him out. He probably needs to put together one full injury-free year before he receives a look. Zimmerman's recent injury likely ruled him out of the action, which is a tough blow since he would have been a good candidate to play in the Gold Cup.
SELECTIONS: Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Tommy McNamara (New York City FC), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Kenny Saief (Gent), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
MISSED THE CUT: Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt), Danny Williams (Reading FC), Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Perry Kitchen (Hearts).
ON VACATION: Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moenchengladbach).
PROJECTED GOLD CUP CUTS: Bedoya, Bradley (knockout-round replacement), McNamara, Pontius, Rowe, Trapp, Saief, Pulisic (knockout-round replacement)
OUTLOOK: Will Arena bring Pulisic along for the entire Gold Cup? Don't bet on it. At some point the Dortmund youngster needs to squeeze in a month off before the European season, and the only way to do that is to miss the Gold Cup group stage. That said, Pulisic should be a factor for the knockout rounds.
Kljestan's absence was one of the bigger surprises, but it just illustrates how he has slipped behind other options in the attacking midfield role. The same can be said for Feilhaber, and at this point Nguyen is in the same boat. As things stand, Pulisic is the first-choice playmaker, with Dempsey and Nagbe behind him.
Roldan and Rowe have never been capped but both have played their way into consideration. Roldan has been particularly impressive and if he can keep his current form going through June he should make the final Gold Cup squad.
McNamara (Ireland) and Saief (Israel) are both eligible for other national teams, so bringing them in to see if they are worth cap-tying makes sense. That being said, competition is fierce in midfield so neither is close to being guaranteed a Gold Cup place.
Seeing Morales and Williams left out was somewhat surprising, but Arena appears to rate players like McCarty, Acosta, and Roldan ahead of the two European-based players.
SELECTIONS: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), C.J. Sapong (Philadelphia Union), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
ON VACATION: Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
PROJECTED GOLD CUP CUTS: Agudelo, Jozy Altidore (knockout round replacement) Clint Dempsey (knockout round replacement)
OUTLOOK: Sapong is having a very good season for the Union and with few target forward options in the pool, bringing him in makes sense. Dwyer recently became a U.S. citizen and is an interesting option as a strong forward who can play as a lone striker or in a two-forward setup.
The Wondolowski inclusion may come as a surprise, but he has proven to be effective against the kind of competition the U.S. will see in the group stage.
And what about Ramirez, one of the real feel-good stories of the current MLS season? It boils down to Arena not being convinced that a good half-season in MLS is enough to give Ramirez the nod over the other players on the list. While that may be the case, if Ramirez can keep up his current scoring pace over the course of a full season, then a January call-up will be tough to deny him.
Boyd and Johannsson are two other players who have had their share of injury issues, and will need to put together good runs of form on the club level before they work their way back into the conversation.