Not all Gold Cups are created equal.
The edition of the biennial CONCACAF tournament taking place immediately after a World Cup year usually takes on greater importance. This was especially true when a spot in the defunct FIFA Confederations Cup was at stake. Even in 2019, with no such prize on the line, the participating countries brought their "A" teams full of their biggest stars. Certainly, heavyweights Mexico and the United States held nothing back.
The second edition in a World Cup cycle has varied in terms of which players make the cut. Some countries use it as an opportunity to refine tactics and personnel ahead of a fresh round of World Cup qualifying, while others explore the deeper parts of their player pool.
For the 2021 Gold Cup, the U.S. is taking the latter approach. Earlier in the summer, U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter made clear his desire to rest most of the European-based players, as well as allow others to be with their clubs for the start of preseason. As it stands, just four players -- MLS-based midfielders Jackson Yueill, Sebastian Lletget and Kellyn Acosta, and Boavista defender Reggie Cannon -- from the roster for the CONCACAF Nations League Finals, are available for the Gold Cup. That stands in contrast to Mexico, with 14 players pulling double duty this summer.
For that reason, it is Mexico -- and not the U.S. -- who enter this Gold Cup as favorites, though Berhalter has a clear agenda for this tournament. In the absence of his overseas stars, his aim is to prepare his side with an eye on the start of World Cup qualifying, especially with "triple-fixture" windows (three games in the two-week breaks) dotting the schedule due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Depth will surely be tested, and the Gold Cup is the perfect opportunity to shore up certain areas of the team before then.
"By the end of this tournament, we're going to have virtually the entire player pool prepared for World Cup qualifying," Berhalter said.
Historically, the Gold Cup group stage has seen the U.S. encounter little in the way of resistance. The USMNT's all-time record in that portion of the competition is 35-1-4, with the lone defeat coming at the hands of Panama in 2011.
But this edition's group stage looks trickier than in years past. Canada has improved immensely this cycle, and beat the U.S. during the Nations League, its first such win over its southern neighbor in 34 years. Manager Steven Herdman has also brought in much of his first-choice roster, including Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies and Besiktas' Cyle Larin. Meanwhile, Haiti reached the semifinals of the Gold Cup in 2019, though they were eliminated in World Cup qualifying by Canada in June. Martinique looks to be the weakest team in the group, though it has played the U.S. tough in the past, including a 3-2 defeat in the group stage of the 2017 Gold Cup.
This U.S. roster is also filled with young players. Five are uncapped, and a total of 14 have fewer than 10 international appearances. Yet such is the advantage that the U.S. has in terms of depth and resources, reaching the final is the minimum that should be expected.
The tournament also provides opportunities for players to take on increased roles when the full team reconvenes in September for World Cup qualifying. Nashville SC center-back Walker Zimmerman has a chance to prove to Berhalter that he should be in the mix to start alongside John Brooks.
Yueill will also be looking to redeem himself after struggling in the Nations League semifinal against Honduras, while Lletget is keen to solidify his role in Berhalter's midfield rotation. Finally, can a player like Cristian Roldan, who has excelled for the Seattle Sounders, force his way back in?
There are also players like Sporting Kansas City midfielder Gianluca Busio, NYCFC defender James Sands and Portland Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson aiming to make their initial forays at international level. New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner is also poised to make the next step in his career.
But the most wide-open position on the field is up front, as nobody has really staked their claim to the starting spot. Of the forwards on the Gold Cup roster, Daryl Dike, 21, looks to have the biggest opportunity. He followed last year's solid rookie season with Orlando City SC with a beyond impressive loan spell with English Championship side Barnsley that saw him bag nine goals in 22 appearances. He also scored his first goal at international level last month in the 4-0 friendly win over Costa Rica. Long-time Berhalter favorite Gyasi Zardes, 29, also figures to get some time centrally as well.
The competition out wide will also bear watching if only because Berhalter will be playing usual forwards like Caen's Nicholas Gioacchini and Schalke's Matthew Hoppe there to bolster usual wingers Paul Arriola and Jonathan Lewis. It points to a roster that, as Berhalter noted, has some vulnerabilities. But the team's goal is the same as if the full group was available.
"We want to look at this as a team that can compete to win the Gold Cup, let's be really clear with that, and that's going to be our expectation," Berhalter said this month. "And will it be difficult, absolutely, but we think there's enough backbone in this group, we think there's enough veteran leadership in this group, to make a run on winning Gold Cup."
That journey for the USMNT begins on Sunday night against Haiti.