Why the Gold Cup matters to the U.S.
Summer is here. And for the third consecutive year, that means the U.S. is on the eve of a major international tournament. This time, it will play in the 2011 Gold Cup, which will anoint the champion of North and Central America and the Caribbean. "Wait," you say. "Major? The Gold Cup? That tournament to which the U.S. sent a patchwork team of mostly prospects that proceeded to get clobbered 5-0 by Mexico in the final last time around? Seriously?"
Why, yes. And here are five reasons why this tournament is worth paying attention to:
1. A ticket to the Confederations Cup
As the U.S. has learned by now, reaching the World Cup can be reduced to a series of hoops you have to jump through, spread out over qualification stages ranging from de facto formalities at first to real challenges near the end.
The final hoop isn't mandatory, but is more useful to the process of building a team than most of the ones before it. That's the Confederations Cup, the quadrennial host-nation dry run the year before the World Cup. And while this Gold Cup has no bearing on who gets to go to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014, it does decide who heads to Brazil for the Confederations Cup in 2013.
This is vitally important for a country such as the U.S., which needs all the help it can get at the World Cup.
Of the countries that went on to play in the 2010 World Cup after participating in the 2009 Confederations Cup, all but Italy and Brazil performed above expectations. The familiarity the Confed Cup affords to its participants, giving them a chance to get acclimated to the World Cup host country a year before the big show starts, is priceless for smaller teams looking for an edge. The U.S., for example, had already played in every stadium it would compete in during the World Cup in South Africa thanks to its Confed Cup experience.
But only if the U.S. wins the Gold Cup will it qualify for the next Confederations Cup. That, more than the prestige of winning the Gold Cup, is what really matters.
2. Significant time
For national team programs, significant time spent as a group is precious, especially for a hardworking one such as the U.S., which relies on a strong team spirit to help it overachieve.
That makes tournaments like the Gold Cup extra important for fostering cohesion and fitting new pieces into the chemistry puzzle. While some say team spirit is overrated, it's rare to find a country that performs well on the pitch when the locker room isn't clicking.
Let's make it: The Gold Cup is the only lengthy spell of time that the complete senior team -- minus injured midfielder Stuart Holden -- will spend together in a tournament setting with multiple weeks together until the summer of 2013.
3. The rebuilding effort
This time together is also invaluable because the U.S. squad has some remodeling to do. As is well-publicized by now, three-quarters of the 2010 World Cup's starting back line (captain Carlos Bocanegra, right back Steve Cherundolo and center back Jay DeMerit) will be 35, 35 and 34, respectively, in 2014, while the left back spot, where Jonathan Bornstein mostly operates, remains a liability. The Gold Cup will give the U.S. a chance to properly audition potential successors Tim Ream and Eric Lichaj in the center and right side of the defense.
The middle of the park, meanwhile, is still unsettled, with five candidates -- Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, Freddy Adu and Sacha Kljestan -- fighting for the spots between wingers Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. (When Holden eventually returns, things will get even more complicated.)
Similarly, the attack is in the process of being revamped. For the Gold Cup, the U.S. has just one holdover striker from the World Cup, Jozy Altidore, who has left a poor impression of late. The other candidates are the highly promising Juan Agudelo and MLS overachiever Chris Wondolowski, whose only appearance with the national team in January against Chile was solely as a target man, which doesn't suit his skill set.
With up to six more games together in a single month after the debacle at the hands of Spain on Saturday, the U.S. has an opportunity to resolve these issues. And it had better tend to them at the Gold Cup, because it's hard to experiment with a team when it comes together for only a few days every other month or so. If the U.S. fails to sort itself out this summer, it will be in the unenviable position of having major structural work on its squad left to complete with the World Cup less than two years away.
4. The formation
In addition to the above personnel changes, coach Bob Bradley has tinkered with a switch from a rigid 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 with one central attacker and two holding midfielders. Given his surplus of central midfielders and dearth of experienced forwards, this is a smart move.
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A question the Gold Cup will have to answer, though, is whether the 4-5-1 makes sense without the the services of Holden, who is the clear front-runner to play at the top of the midfield triangle.
Who will fill in for Holden during the Gold Cup? In Edu's tryout at the top of the triangle when the U.S. faced Argentina in March, he wasn't as successful as he has sometimes been for his club, Glasgow Rangers. The inclusion on the U.S. roster of Kljestan and surprise call-up Adu, as well as the call-up of the since-injured Benny Failhaber, all at their best as central attacking midfielders, suggests Bradley isn't ready to bag the 4-5-1 and will try these players out in Holden's old spot.
The coach should figure out who he wants to stick with by the end of the Gold Cup. There will be enough relatively easy games -- against Panama and Guadeloupe and, dare I say it, Canada -- to give the U.S. some leeway to try some new things. But, again, it will want this matter settled by the end of the tournament, when it begins playing for all the marbles during World Cup qualifying.
5. U.S. vs. Mexico
The U.S. doesn't get too many opportunities to play its archrival Mexico in a game that means something. This tournament could offer one such opportunity. In the unlikely event that one team wins its group and the other finishes third, they would meet in the quarterfinals. But they are odds-on favorites to both reach the final.
Not only should this lead to fireworks, as Mexico and the U.S. will both field full-strength teams in this tournament with all the star power available on hand, but it should give the U.S. the opportunity to get a good look at its main rivals for the top spot in CONCACAF in World Cup qualifying.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @LeanderESPN