Soccer in the summer never slows down in the States. Tonight the U.S. kicks off its Gold Cup campaign playing mighty Belize in Portland, Ore. (11 p.m., Fox Soccer, Gus Johnson alert). Although the stakes for this edition of the Gold Cup aren’t the highest — the 2013 and 2015 winners will meet to determine who plays in the 2017 Confederations Cup — it’s still the USMNT playing in an international competition. Granted, the level of pressure on Jurgen Klinsmann is much lower than that of Mexico coach Chepo de la Torre. After winning three straight qualifiers, Klinsmann is beyond the point where his future will be debated after every match.
Aside from the Confederations Cup carrot, the Gold Cup is mainly a chance for fringe American players to make an impression and improve their stock for the 23-man 2014 World Cup roster. Eleven months away, barring injury or falling into the Springfield Mystery Spot, here’s what that roster on the plane to Brazil looks like:
- Locks: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Omar Gonzalez, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore,
- Almost locks: Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Eddie Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Herculez Gomez.
- Enigma: Landon Donovan
Assuming Donovan, who scored twice Friday vs. Guatemala, gets his head right and is on the same page with Klinsmann, he’ll be there. Throw in the third-choice keeper and realistically leaves about seven spots up for grabs. The Gold Cup won’t tell us about European-based guys like Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler or Danny Williams, who should remain under consideration. So with that in mind, let’s look at the U.S. players with the most to gain or lose via the Gold Cup this month. We’ll omit Donovan from the list since he’s such a special case.
Most to gain:
- Joe Corona: The 22-year-old has been great as a pro for Tijuana. Klinsmann started him vs. Guatemala and could count on his creativity as an option off the bench in 2014. A solid Gold Cup moves him up the pecking order, quickly.
- Nick Rimando: A strong Gold Cup and the Real Salt Lake vet locks up the final goalie position, holding off Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson.
- Edgar Castillo: Klinsmann rates the Mexican-American very highly and will be given ample looks at left back and left wing. He might be another guy who’s better suited coming off the bench where his high-energy approach helps in grueling international tournaments.
- Stuart Holden: After his second-half performance Friday vs. Guatemala fans are already pining for the oft-injured Bolton midfielder to pair with Bradley in the middle of the park for the U.S. If healthy, Holden figures to be almost a lock for Brazil.
- Jack McInerney: The 20-year-old has been a scoring-machine for the Union this season in MLS. He might not play very much in the tournament, but what he does behind-the-scenes and in training to impress Klinsmann will be key.
Most to Lose:
- Jose Torres: The 25-year-old midfielder has been given ample chances to impress in the U.S. shirt under both Bob Bradley and Klinsmann, but never seems to have a position that suits him best at the international level. With an ineffective Gold Cup he’ll fall further down the pecking order in the crowded central midfield pack.
- Clarence Goodson: The tall central defender recently return to MLS and has fallen behind Besler in the center back depth chart. Without a standout Gold Cup, he might see his opportunities to crack the starting XI slip as the Gonzalez-Belser pairing seems to be clicking — for now.
Could go either way:
- Oguchi Onyewu: Now 31, the man once lovingly referred to as “Gooch” and who famously stared down Mexico’s Jared Borgetti, looked to be on the outside looking in. Klinsmann offered him a lifeline, despite his unsettled club situation. Lesser CONCACAF opposition might be the best test to see how much the oft-traveled central defender has left, but he’ll get a shot to work his way back into consideration or play himself out of it and join Carlos Bocanegra on the sidelines.
- Brek Shea: The gun-loving Texan was off the initial 23-man roster for the tournament but was included after Josh Gatt’s injury. Shea once looked like a future prospect on the left flank, but has seen his stock drop rapidly in part due to lack of playing time after a transfer to Stoke City. A poor showing this month might doom his chances for 2014.
Other guys on the roster, take Kyle Beckerman, Michael Parkhurst are solid U.S. players when called upon. We know what they are at this point and the Gold Cup isn’t going to change that. Other fringe guys like Alejandro Bedoya, Mix Diskerud or Tony Beltran likely need a standout showing throughout the month to merit consideration going forward, though their youth should work in their favor.
The likes of Belize, Cuba and a second-choice Costa Rica team shouldn’t pose much of a challenge during the group stage, so it’s the internal competition that merits the closest monitoring during the tournament.