When it comes to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, no one looks better right now than the United States. Mexico are in poor form and just lost two of their biggest stars to injury. Costa Rica are a good side and proved that a year ago in the World Cup, but are missing four of their top starters and two other backups.
The USMNT, on the other hand, seem to have shaken off their own run of bad luck with injury and form, looking good in recent months and coming in with a strong, tantalizing side. Led by newly minted captain Michael Bradley, along with Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, this version of the United States national team looks primed for an incredible Gold Cup run. Can they live up to our expectations -- or maybe, somehow, exceed them? That would be a tough task after the excitement the United States women brought us with their World Cup title run, but if they can get close to that level of thrill, we're in for a treat.
Who can break out: Gyasi Zardes
The LA Galaxy forward has been an eye-opening figure on the national team scene in 2015. Zardes was given his first senior callup and international cap in January, when he came on as a substitute against Chile, then started against Panama a week later and provided an assist in that match. He's now played eight times for the USMNT, and scored his first goal in an impressive performance against the Netherlands to level the score in an eventual upset win for the U.S.
Zardes is a fascinating player for the Americans. The athletic 23-year-old is, in a lot of ways, a throwback to the "outrun and outwork everyone" era of the USMNT that a lot of fans would rather see left in the past. Now trying to be a more technical side, the national team still needs some willing runners, and Zardes' energy and flair meshes incredibly well with the rest of the guys he's been playing with at this level for the past six months. He makes an impact every time he steps out onto the pitch, and that's something that's worth a lot in the international game.
Now Zardes is being given a chance to truly shine on the biggest stage he's been on yet. This Gold Cup is the first big tournament he's been selected for, and while he may not start every match the U.S. play, he's still going to be a major presence in the side. Whether he's out from the first whistle or being brought in to change the energy of the match, Zardes will be involved in a big way. No matter what happens, you will remember his name once the Gold Cup is over.
Zardes isn't the only new face in this side. Retirements, sabbaticals and injuries mean that this is a different U.S. side from the one we saw a year ago in the World Cup, with some new faces and old friends back for another round. The defense especially has seen changes, with Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley and Geoff Cameron missing out. Replacing them is the much younger group of Ventura Alvarado, Greg Garza and Tim Ream -- who is playing in his first major international tournament since the 2011 Gold Cup, with only a few friendlies and a lot of time spent at home off the roster in between.
The midfield has also seen a once-fringe player make regular appearances since the World Cup. Alfredo Morales seems to be getting groomed for the midfield utility role dominated by Alejandro Bedoya in the last few years. Basically a younger, faster version of Bedoya, having two players of that versatile template at his disposal gives Jurgen Klinsmann significant options to play with during a tournament like this.
Of course, each team is allowed to make up to six changes to the roster between the end of the group stage and the start of the knockout rounds, so we could still see a few of the guys left off from the provisional roster show up later on. Players like Juan Agudelo, Lee Nguyen, Brek Shea, Michael Orozco, Besler and Beasley could still play a part for the USMNT in this tournament, giving the team fresh legs after the tight and tough schedule of the group stage. Sadly, young phenom Jordan Morris won't be joining them, since he recently had surgery to help repair a leg fracture.
Key player: Michael Bradley
Of course, it's not all about the new blood. The new Captain America, Bradley is the man at the heart of the USMNT's midfield, no matter how it's set up or approaching a given match. He's a playmaker and a defensive worker all wrapped up into one package, and it's a versatile role he plays, one that the U.S. relies on him providing to get things done.
But Bradley hasn't always played well, struggling with some of the roles and demands that Klinsmann has put on him over the last few years. More recently, he's been getting settled into a box-to-box role that allows him to supplement play all over the pitch in every phase of the game, putting him constantly in the middle of the action whether the U.S. are in possession or not. That's the kind of role Bradley was born to play, and the USMNT have been all the better for it.
Who's a risk
As much as we'd like to imagine otherwise, not every United States player is a stone-cold lock to perform at incredible levels. There are several players in the squad who could actually be a source of concern if things don't go right, and will bear close scrutiny as the tournament progresses.
Many of those question marks lie in the defense. John Brooks was one of the heroes of the World Cup, but a shaky club season has leaked into his national team play, and his hot-and-cold partnership with Omar Gonzalez has been rough of late. Their backups (Ream and Alvarado) don't exactly inspire confidence either, especially Alvarado -- it's hard to deny that the Club America defender has talent, but he's had a rough time on the international stage and looks far from a finished product.
There's also a notable concern in midfield: who will back up Kyle Beckerman? He's a great deputy for the injured Jermaine Jones, but he's also getting older and tends to pick up a bunch of yellow cards, so he probably won't be available for every match. Unfortunately, there isn't a clear-cut backup for him in the squad, with all of the other midfielders being best in either more attacking or box-to-box 'tweener roles rather than as a straight-up holding midfielder.
Mix Diskerud did alright in that spot in the warmup friendly against Guatemala, but he also didn't really do anything to make you believe that he can dominate against top competition, and to put it bluntly, there are a lot of CONCACAF teams who are better than Guatemala. If Beckerman is unavailable for a big match, the USMNT might be in for a world of hurt.
The U.S. could go with a couple of different approaches in terms of their shape and formation going from match to match. If they want to get two forwards up and don't need to focus on holding possession quite as much, they can roll out the 4-4-2, either a flatter version with the two central midfielders forming a line, or a wide diamond of sorts with the more defensive midfielder in front of the back line and Bradley up behind the strikers. If they want to control the match a little more, they can take out one of the wingers, shift Clint Dempsey out to a wider starting spot and put in an extra central midfielder to play in more of a 4-3-3.
Both shapes have been used by the USMNT in recent months, and they've done well with each of them -- but they have also had occasional issues with both. Before we get more into the details, let's look at what the two shapes would look like.
Both formations work similarly -- Dempsey spends a lot of time drifting in and out either way, just replacing a wide man with an extra central midfielder in Diskerud, who's there to help maintain possession.
The personnel listed aren't locked in stone by any means -- Zardes and Bedoya are a toss-up from match to match depending on how fit each player is and who they're playing against. We'll probably see plenty of Alvarado in central defense, likely rotating more with Gonzalez than Brooks. When the U.S. play a minnow like Haiti, we'll probably see Beckerman rested in favor of Diskerud in the 4-4-2.
With two different shapes they can play in and succeed with, the U.S. will be a versatile and difficult-to-predict opponent, especially with several players swapping around in different positions to give them a difficult look from match to match. That unpredictability could prove to be the biggest key for the U.S. as they push for their second consecutive Gold Cup title, and the place in the 2017 Confederations Cup that comes with it.