The USA begins their 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign Tuesday night in Portland against Belize. On the surface, it doesn't seem like this year's tournament will mean much.
The U.S., like some of the other contenders, have sent their B-teams to play. The tournament also comes in the midst of World Cup qualifying, providing a potential distraction to the countries vying for the top spots in the hexagonal. This wouldn't be a problem if the tournament wasn't held every two years, but that's another story, one discussed here by Bleacher Report's Jerrad Peters.
Despite these detractive factors, the event still has value, especially to the USMNT, both as individuals and the team as a whole. Here are three reasons U.S. soccer fans should care about their country's progress in the Gold Cup.
The International Stage
This refers not only to the stage the Gold Cup itself provides, but to what it could provide in the future. In the past, Gold Cups held the year after World Cups, including 2003, 2005 and 2011, were used as qualification for the FIFA Confederations Cup. Gold Cups held the year before World Cups, including 2005 and 2009, did not offer such an incentive, making them less enticing for participating countries.
However, the format has since changed, giving the nations playing in this year's tournament more to play for. In April, CONCACAF announced both Gold Cups before a given Confederations Cup would be used towards qualification. This means the winner of this year's Gold Cup and the 2015 champion will play to determine the region's representative in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Why is this important for the U.S.? Because they haven't had a significant win in a major tournament against a quality opponent since the last Confederations Cup in 2009, when they beat Spain in the semifinal. Winning the Gold Cup—and potentially qualifying for the Confederations Cup—would give this team another chance to win a statement game.
Finding Future Stars
Most of the guys on the U.S. Gold Cup roster won't play a big role in the rest of World Cup qualifying. They simply don't have the experience yet. Three veterans on the squad have more international caps than the rest of the team combined. Jurgen Klinsmann will, however, be using the Gold Cup to determine who will break into the starting lineup, perhaps as early as next year's World Cup.
One guy to keep an eye on is midfielder Brek Shea, whom Bleacher Report's Rob Goldberg included on a list of Americans under pressure against Belize. The 23-year-old was a late addition to the roster, filling in for an injured Joshua Gatt.
This a big chance for Shea to prove himself on the international stage, but it may come at the cost of his club-team status. Shea's own injuries limited him to just two appearances at Stoke City since coming over from FC Dallas in a January transfer, and playing in the Gold Cup will force him to miss preparation for next season, as The New York Times' Brian Sciaretta pointed out:
This creates quite the paradox, as limiting Shea's playing time at Stoke would decrease the chances Klinsmann picks him in the future. But now that he is healthy, Shea just needs to get on the field and play well, whether it is for club or country.
I mentioned above that three players had more caps than the rest of the U.S. roster combined. One of those three is captain DaMarcus Beasley, who has 104. Another is Oguchi Onyewu, with 67. The third is the oldest member of the squad, Landon Donovan, with 145.
After taking a sabbatical from the game following the end of the 2012 MLS season, Donovan had yet to appear for the USMNT until the July 5th win against Guatemala. Donovan played well after gaining his first international cap since August 2012, albeit in a friendly against a relatively weak opponent.
Donovan brings a lot of experience and a nose for the goal. So will he propel the squad forward, as Bleacher Report's Nathan McCarter suggested? Or will he be a distraction? After all, as NBC Sports' Richard Farley wrote, Beasley being named captain is a reminder that it's not all about Donovan, though it may often feel like it. In this Gold Cup we will learn what Donovan can still provide the national team.
The 2014 World Cup looms in the not-so-distant future, and success is the goal on every USMNT member's mind. But in order to succeed on the biggest of stages, they must first conquer the smaller ones, and establish who their key players are in the process. The 2013 Gold Cup is that stepping stone to bigger and better things.