NASHVILLE — The United States men’s national soccer team will have a different look when it opens play in the Gold Cup against Panama Saturday.
But it’s not what you think.
It’s not that the team needs a shake-up. The Americans are undefeated (four wins and four ties) since Bruce Arena took over as coach in November.
It’s not that Arena is trying to send a message to his veterans. Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron were the keys in a crucial 1-1 tie vs. Mexico in last month’s World Cup qualifying match.
And it’s not that key players are injured. The team is as healthy as it has been in a year.
It’s that the U.S. team has some young players who are pushing for playing time and an opportunity to show where they stand compared with mainstays.
“The general assumption is that all of these guys are pretty good players,” Arena said Tuesday after a training session at Lipscomb University. “So it’s how they make that adjustment from the club level to the national team, to the international level. Because they play different roles.”
The Gold Cup includes three groups of four teams from the CONCACAF region, with the first- and second-place teams and the top two third-place squads advancing to the quarterfinals. That’s another way of saying the Americans should stick around beyond the group-stage play. In fact, they are among the favorites to win the tournament, along with Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama.
But nobody will confuse the Gold Cup for the World Cup.
“There’s no actual significance for this championship,” Arena said. “But it’s important to win your confederation championship, and we’re certainly setting our sights on that.”
That makes this a perfect opportunity to adjust the roster. Of the 23 players on the team for the Gold Cup, four are playing in their first international tournament for the U.S. and four others have one or two caps.
Goalkeeper Bill Hamid — along with Sean Johnson — is backing up Brad Guzan while Tim Howard gets a rest.
Justin Morrow, 29, and Matt Hedges, 27, are older players getting their first chance at the national team.
Matt Miazga and Cristian Roldan, both 22, as well as Kelyn Rowe, 25, are younger and potential regulars down the road.
Miazga is property of Chelsea, the European giant who won the Premier League. He spent the past season on loan to Vitesse in the Netherlands. After making his way through the U.S. national program, the New Jersey native has achieved a goal in making a senior squad.
“You always have a timetable in mind, and playing in Europe and playing at a high level I’ve always wanted to be part of the national team,” Miazga said. “But I can only worry about what I can control, and if I get called up, I get called up.”
Dom Dwyer, 26, and Kenny Saief, 23, are also newcomers and recently tied themselves to the U.S.
Dwyer was born and raised in England and came to the U.S. to play in college. Married to Sydney Leroux, a member of the U.S. women’s team, he has been playing for Sporting Kansas City in the MLS since 2012 and became a U.S. citizen in May.
He’s quick and energetic up front and made an electrifying debut for the U.S. on Saturday in a friendly against Ghana, scoring the team’s first goal in a 2-1 victory.
Likewise Saief, 23, has taken a long journey to get here. He was born in Florida but raised in Israel. After making two appearances for Israel’s national team, he used FIFA’s one-time exemption to switch to the U.S.
“The only player I probably would not have a whole lot of great insight on is Kenny Saief, so we got to see him last week (against Ghana),” Arena said. “But the rest of the players I’m pretty comfortable with.”
Joe Corona, 26, is new in that he hasn’t appeared for the U.S. since 2014. He played in 14 matches from 2011-14 and then disappeared into Mexico’s top league.
But like many of the players on the current roster, he always had aspirations of wearing the red, white and blue.
“The national team is something I always have on my mind,” Corona said. “But I just work hard and do good things and know that the U.S. team will keep an eye on me.
“It’s a good opportunity for a lot of us who haven’t been here in a while.”