Two years ago, on July 28th, in Chicago the United States defeated Panama 1-0 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final. This victory came after the U.S. had been humiliated by Mexico in the previous two editions of the tournament and meant that the USMNT was once again the top team in CONCACAF.
This year the U.S. will look to equal Mexico's record 6 Gold Cup championships, when its campaign kicks off on July 7th. Despite the roster being very different from two years ago, the USMNT is still loaded with talented players such as Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Bradley, as a veteran and the team's recently named captain, will be expected to set the example on the field and lead the team to another championship.
The biggest questions surrounding this team are regarding the defense. The uncertainty begins with starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Guzan was relegated to the bench by Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood for the last few weeks of the season and had many disappointing performances throughout the Premier League season.
Brad Guzan's backline at Aston Villa was mediocre and deserves plenty of the blame for Villa's defensive struggles, but Guzan still did not perform nearly as well as he has in past seasons. His play will have to be much better in order for the U.S. to win the Gold Cup.
Questions also remain about the U.S. centerbacks. It's a safe bet that Omar Gonzalez will be one of the starting centerbacks, but it remains to be seen whether Ventura Alvarado or John Anthony Brooks will partner with Gonzalez. In the recent friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands, the centerback pairing of Alvarado and Brooks looked quite vulnerable. Both Alvarado and Brooks struggled greatly against the Netherlands and while they played better against Germany they need to become more consistent.
Brooks relies too often on his physical prowess to make difficult plays to stop opposition attacks. If Brooks worked on his positioning and communication he would be able to make simple plays to stop attacks before they become dangerous.
It is quite apparent from watching Ventura Alvarado that he is still learning how to play with his teammates. He has only played in a handful of international matches and it shows. It seems as if he is still adjusting to the fast speed of play in international matches. Both Brooks and Alvarado are talented players with bright futures, but one of them needs to establish himself as an elite CONCACAF defender in this tournament.
The U.S. offense was incredible against the Netherlands, Germany and Guatemala. The USMNT attack will simply overwhelm opposing teams if it continues to play at such a high level. Unfortunately the team will miss Jordan Morris, who is currently injured, but despite Morris' injury, this team still has plenty of offensive firepower.
Where Jurgen Klinsmann deploys Michael Bradley in the central midfield will be key to the attacking success of the U.S. Bradley was amazing as a playmaking number 10 against the Netherlands and Germany, but could be used as a more defensive number 8. In my opinion, Bradley should continue to be utilized as a playmaker in order to maximize the success of the offense.
The only real challenge the U.S. should face in the group stage is against Panama and the U.S. is expected to win the group. Due to the way the bracket is set up a U.S. v Mexico final is very likely, although Costa Rica and Panama will like their chances of making the final.
The U.S. has always been a top team in CONCACAF and once again will be expected to take home the championship. If the team fails to do so questions will be asked of Jurgen Klinsmann and fans will quickly forget historic victories against Germany and the Netherlands. Anything less then hoisting the trophy is unacceptable.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), William Yarbrough (Club Leon)
Defenders: Ventura Alvarado (Club America), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Tim Ream (Bolton Wanderers), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Greg Garza (Club Atlas)
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (FC Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
Group Stage Matches
U.S. v. Honduras 7/7 - Frisco, Texas
U.S. v. Haiti 7/10 - Foxborough, Massachusetts
U.S. v. Panama 7/13 - Kansas City, Kansas
Players to Watch
Fabian Johnson: It's unknown whether Johnson will play in midfield or defense, but if he plays as a defender then he will likely be one of the team's more consistent defenders. If Johnson plays in midfield he will be able to provide more service from the wing then he would if he was a defender. He's coming off a great season with Borussia Mönchengladbach and his form should carry over to the Gold Cup.
Michael Bradley: The U.S. captain and midfield maestro will be an integral part of the team's offense. Bradley's motor and passing range are two of his most impressive attributes. It wouldn't be shocking to see him named tournament MVP.
Clint Dempsey: Despite concerns about how Clint Dempsey would play after being suspended for weeks, he looked like his usual effective self against Guatemala. Dempsey will likely play up top with Altidore and how these two play together will be key to the U.S. offense. Dempsey is one of the best players in CONCACAF and can play the roles of both finisher and provider.