Zendejas is one of five U.S. players who were part of Concacaf Nations League Final Four roster and now in interim manager B.J. Callaghan’s squad for the Gold Cup campaign, which kicks off on Saturday vs. Jamaica at Soldier Field.
The Club América winger, 25, committed his international playing career to the United States over Mexico this year, but long has been involved in U.S. programs since he was 13.
“Hopefully I can take a leadership role,” Zendejas said Friday in a news conference. “I feel like B.J. has given me the confidence to do so. I’m trying to take in what I got from the guys in Nations League camp and bring it into the Gold Cup.”
The U.S. impressed at the Nations League earlier in June, thumping rival Mexico 3-0 in the June 15 semifinal and winning the final 2-0 over Canada last Sunday. Zendejas watched both contests from the bench, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the experience.
Callaghan joked that the funniest moment he’d seen involving Zendejas was watching him enjoy a meal in the team room without a shirt, but still wearing a Nations League medal.
“You could tell how important that moment was for him, and it’s something I was glad he was able to experience with the team. Hopefully we continue to have great success in the Gold Cup and he can keep his shirt off one more time,” Callaghan said with a laugh.
Zendejas certainly wouldn’t mind another champagne-soaked celebration and the chance to hang a winners’ medal around his neck.
“It’s not every day you get to lift the trophy, so I really took that in,” Zendejas said. “And that’s just extra motivation to do the same with this tournament.”
While spirits are high after the United States’ CNL triumph, Saturday brings a serious challenge. Jamaica is the strongest team in the Americans’ Gold Cup group, bringing a roster stocked with Premier League talent like West Ham forward Michail Antonio, Aston Villa winger Leon Bailey and, the latest addition, Everton attacker Demarai Gray. Another Premier League standout, Brentford center back Ethan Pinnock, is on the squad but is yet to join the team because of personal reasons.
But Callahan still is expecting a stiff challenge from the Reggae Boyz.
“We look at the roster Jamaica was able to bring here for the Gold Cup, and I don’t think it’s any secret in our camp that is probably the most talented Jamaica team that we’re going to face. You have tons of experienced players, young players and also players that have performed really well in the Gold Cup over a lot of years for them,” he said. “We’re expecting a team that’s motivated that we think can bend or hurt you in different ways, in a lot of phases of the game.”
While the U.S. also enters this tournament the defending champion, Callaghan said he wants his team to consider the group stage as its own competition.
“We’re really looking at this as two tournaments,” Callaghan said. “There’s a knockout stage tournament that we need to earn the opportunity to get to by playing through the group stage first. So the focus right now with the group, the messaging is just that we understand that we’re going to be here from tomorrow till July 2 and we have to earn an opportunity to get ourselves into the knockout round.”
USMNT’s Alex Zendejas aims for a leadership role at Gold Cup