For these games, Arena has given many of his top-choice players a rest. In their place on the 23-man roster are some other veterans and a host of new faces and second-tier players, all hoping to catch the coaching staff’s eye a year before the World Cup. But the players also know a hard truth: Whatever they do in the next month, most of them will watch the World Cup from home.
“Players in their situation don’t have a lot of opportunities, so this is probably their best opportunity to show something,” Arena said. “Clearly, they understand the fact that this competition, not only tomorrow but the Gold Cup, is going to be important for them.”
While Arena is familiar with many of the players from his coaching days in Major League Soccer, 10 have never been on a team of his before. More than a dozen players on the roster have made 10 or fewer appearances with the national team, but each sees this month’s opportunity through his own lens.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan, Tim Howard’s longtime backup, has his sights on a starting role. Defender Jorge Villafaña, whose first call-up came in January, and midfielder Kellyn Acosta, a 21-year-old Texan, have quickly earned Arena’s trust and will want to keep it. The Chicago Fire’s Dax McCarty, 30, is probably facing his last chance to convert the respect he has gained in Major League Soccer into a national team career.
“If you’d have asked me at this time last year, I would have said, ‘Yeah, my national team career is dead,’” McCarty said. “But now I’ve been in every camp under Bruce, and I’ve gotten great feedback from him and the coaching staff. I haven’t played too many games, obviously, because the defensive midfield position is one that’s got some pretty good players in it. But for me, it’s just another opportunity to prove that I deserve to be part of the team.”
The new faces might be even more intriguing. Dom Dwyer, a British-born striker, and midfielder Kenny Saief, a 23-year-old who has played for Israel’s youth team, both changed their citizenship status this year to join the United States team.
“This is a first step for many players,” said Kelyn Rowe, another of those hoping to make a first appearance for the United States. “If we can do well in this camp, and then go back to our clubs and do well again, there’s always a chance we can make that Russia team.”
U.S. Soccer likes to point out that solid performances in the Gold Cup have catapulted players on the fringes of the national team into more prominent roles in the World Cups that followed. Clint Dempsey, in 2005, and Omar Gonzalez, in 2013, are two current regulars who helped themselves immensely in year-out camps like this one.
So did defender Matt Besler. He started four games in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — less than 18 months after his first appearance for the national team. Now 30, he hopes to use this summer’s camp to show Arena that he deserves to stay in the mix for 2018.
“We’re only about a year out from Russia,” Besler said. “That’s not very long. We want to start preparing and setting the tone.”
Arena was coy Friday about how many spots are in play for Russia. “In my opinion,” he said, “there are a lot.”
After the friendly against Ghana, which has its own World Cup qualifying concerns, the Americans will play first-round Gold Cup games against Panama (Saturday in Nashville), Martinique (July 12 in Tampa, Fla.) and Nicaragua (July 15 in Cleveland). If Arena emerges from the tournament with some promising new faces, that will be fine. But it is not, he said, the goal.
“The objective here is really pretty short-term,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be really happy if we don’t qualify for the World Cup and I discover players for the future. I don’t think anyone’s really gonna care.”