There was Christian Pulisic enjoying a champagne shower. Folarin Balogun running in behind a Canada center-back to finish off a pristine pass from Gio Reyna. Weston McKennie channeling a Renaissance painting when kissing the badge of his ripped shirt.
United States men’s national team fans enjoyed plenty of sights during the Concacaf Nations League final four, seeing the Stars and Stripes thump rival Mexico 3-0 in the semifinals and roll past Canada 2-0 in the final. The Gold Cup will look different.
For one, it’s a much longer tournament. The USMNT kicks things off Saturday against Jamaica, before playing two more group matches against Caribbean teams. Provided it advances, it would need to win three more matches to lift its eighth Gold Cup and tie Mexico as the most successful team in the continental championship.
While those visions of the team’s top players celebrating a trophy may be enough to tide U.S. supporters over until the 2024 Nations League final four or next summer’s Copa América played on home soil, the U.S. program still would love to defend its Gold Cup title and continue to leave no doubt as to which program currently sits atop Concacaf. In order to do so, the U.S. will have to answer a number of questions on its road to the final in Inglewood, California
What role will the Nations League holdovers play?
Five players who enjoyed the Nations League celebrations will shake off any lingering buzz and be part of the Americans’ Gold Cup campaign. Two of them are goalkeepers, with Matt Turner and Sean Johnson both on the squad. Center-back Miles Robinson is back after missing Sunday’s final vs. Canada with a hamstring issue.
That trio is well known to U.S. fans though the question is whether Turner, wearing the No. 1 shirt on the roster announced this week, will keep backstopping the U.S. for the whole tournament or will step aside to allow Johnson — or U.S. U20 goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina — opportunities, especially in the group stage.
More intriguing are the two Liga MX-based players who were in the Nations League squad but didn’t see minutes. Club América winger Alejandro Zendejas and FC Juarez midfielder Alan Soñora both could play important roles for the U.S. during the Gold Cup.
Zendejas in particular feels like a player who will be asked to shoulder a heavy load. In the midst of a strong season with América, the Mexican American winger committed his future to the U.S. program, but played a supporting role as Pulisic and Tim Weah slashed through their rivals in the Nations League. The 25-year-old should get a chance not only to see minutes but to take a leadership role on a young team, showing fans why the U.S. staff was so excited to secure his commitment.
Is Callaghan really that dude?
The memes about B.J. Callaghan, the interim to the interim manager, are funny. But there’s truth behind the image macros.
Callaghan was, and maybe still is, a relative unknown appointed after previous interim manager Anthony Hudson left for a job in the Qatar Stars League. An assistant on former and future U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter’s staff, he had little head-coaching experience entering into the Nations League. Yet he had the U.S. unified, understanding the game plan and executing it in two of the best games the team has played since doing the Nations League/Gold Cup double in 2021.
A longer tournament will mean more decisions for Callaghan to make, both when it comes to keeping the group happy and fresh off the field, while also working out the best tactics for opponents that differ in their styles and approaches. Saturday’s opener against a Jamaica team led by Icelandic manager Heimir Hallgrímsson will be a tough tactical battle to win early in the tournament. While the Reggae Boyz enter the Gold Cup in poor form, winless in 10 including official matches and friendlies, the roster for this tournament includes stars who rarely have been together on the field.
The impending return of Berhalter casts a (slim, sneaker-wearing) shadow over the tournament. We know Berhalter will be back, and while Callaghan is deploying many of the same concepts Berhalter put on the field, he’s not the long-term boss.
Could Callaghan raise his profile further and leverage another successful tournament into another head-coaching chance? Does he even want to? We’ll know midway through July.
Who’s going to score the goals?
Balogun and Ricardo Pepi each getting on the scoresheet during the Nations League, plus Pulisic finding his scoring form, helped answer what has been one of the biggest questions for the U.S. since its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. With none of those players on this roster, the job will fall to a new crop of forwards.
Jordan Morris and Jesus Ferreira are among the most experienced players on the roster, and they’ll will push for starts on the wing and at center-forward respectively. Each comes into the summer in great form, with Ferreira scoring 10 goals and adding two assists this season for FC Dallas while Morris has nine goals for the Seattle Sounders.
They’re joined on the roster by FC Cincinnati forward Brandon Vazquez, who scored 19 goals for FC Cincinnati last season and has four goals and a pair of assists for the Lions this year. Vazquez brings a different profile than Ferreira, and scored against Serbia in a January friendly.
In any tournament as long as the Gold Cup, the U.S. will need multiple players to find the back of the net if they are to lift the trophy. This team has talented individual attackers, but they can’t afford to revert to bad habits seen often in the Berhalter era: keeping the ball, but being too cautious entering the final third or the penalty area.
Will the Gold Cup be someone’s breakout tournament?
A dozen players on the United States’ 23-man roster have six caps or fewer, so there are going to be players asked to step up wearing the national team shirt who have never done so before — or have had chances on a much smaller stage, such as this winter’s friendly match against Serbia. Nine players on the roster are yet to appear in an official match for the U.S.
Among those are San Jose Earthquakes attacker Cade Cowell, one of the standouts of the United States’ run to the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup in Argentina earlier this month. Cowell and goalkeeper Slonina are the only two players on that team to be named so quickly to the senior roster, and Cowell’s attacking instincts may make him a nice addition for Callaghan, whether from the start or as a second-half-change option.
While there is experience at most positions — including right-back, where DeAndre Yedlin arrives with 78 caps — someone has to play on the other side if the U.S. sticks with a back four. DeJuan Jones, Jalen Neal and John Tolkin are MLS-based outside-backs who will look to pin down a place in this tournament’s standard starting XI, and FC Dallas product Bryan Reynolds also will look to earn minutes after a season with Belgium’s Westerlo on loan from Roma.
Every national team manager wants to see depth in the player pool, and opting for a totally different squad from one tournament to the next tests that depth. Yet, it could result in U.S. players rising to the occasion, and giving Berhalter more options for the games he’ll oversee in the fall and on the road to the 2026 World Cup on home soil.
What U.S. soccer can take from Nations League to Gold Cup