The USMNT Gold Cup roster is full of players with something to prove. Whether because they're young or were stuck on the outside of the player pool during the Jurgen Klinsmann era, a host of names enter the summer with a chance to carve out a place in Bruce Arena's future plans.
World Cup qualifiers -- and hopefully the World Cup itself -- loom, giving Arena every reason to give a number of players a golden opportunity to prove themselves across the tournament.
Bruce Arena said it himself: The Gold Cup is going to be an important tournament for Acosta. The 21-year-old FC Dallas midfielder has matured rapidly as part of Oscar Pareja's starting lineup and is now on track to do the same for the USMNT. With Michael Bradley soon to crest 30 and no clear choice to take over for Jermaine Jones, Acosta is in perfect position to not only grab a spot on the World Cup team (provided the USMNT qualifies) but make a case for playing time once he gets there.
Arena has already showed that he trusts Acosta despite his age, giving the youngster a start at the Azteca against Mexico. That match paired Acosta with Bradley, perhaps giving us a peek at a combination that will soon become standard. Bradley's shift to a dedicated defensive midfield position demands a partner who can play box-to-box as a complement to him. Acosta certainly possesses the intelligence and athleticism needed for the job. Maturity and experience should help round him into exactly the player Arena needs moving forward.
A run of games dealing with CONCACAF players and refs can't hurt his understanding of what it takes to compete for the USMNT each and every time out.
Acosta won't have Bradley with him at the Gold Cup, at least not until potential roster changes in the knockout rounds, so the burden will be bigger. Though it's not the World Cup, there will be a level of intensity that Acosta hasn't seen over more than one game in his senior team career. It's his response to that step up in difficulty that will determine Acosta's immediate future at the international level.
If it seems like Agudelo has been around the U.S. squad forever, it's only a slight exaggeration. Agudelo made his first appearance for the Americans immediately following the 2010 World Cup at the age of 17. Nearly seven years later, it's hard to call his impact on the team anything other than "marginal," hence the importance of the Gold Cup for the New England Revolution man.
Agudelo's career was something of a whirlwind until the past few years. A perhaps premature drive to get out of MLS and into Europe led to large stretches where Agudelo was unable to get on the field and hone his not-inconsiderable skills. The decision to sign with New England in 2015 led to more minutes, more starts and more opportunity to remind everyone that he can play.
If this isn't Agudelo's last shot to establish himself in the U.S.'s first-choice forward pool, it's only because he's still just 24 years old. Yet to hit his prime years, "potential" can still be used to describe him, but Agudelo must consistently shine when given the chance in this tournament if he's going to crack the group for Russia 2018.
Forward is where we expect to see Agudelo deployed under Arena, but it should be mentioned that his creative abilities have had him all over the field for New England. That versatility could help him win Arena's approval, but again, only if he provides a consistent game when called upon. There are few forwards in the American pool who can beat defenders one-on-one, create their own shooting opportunities and hold up the ball with skill like Agudelo can.
No player on the Gold Cup roster is more of a mystery to American soccer fans than Saief. The Florida-born, Israel-raised midfielder doesn't exactly play his club soccer in the hinterlands, but his recent switch to the USMNT after turning out for Israel's youth sides means there's only a limited knowledge of his game and an anxiousness to see what he can do. That means that Saief has something to prove not just to his coach, but to the U.S. faithful.
The book on Saief is promising. At Gent in Belgium, Saief plays as a left-sided midfielder and wing-back, capable of popping up in front of goal on occasion. His game is built on energy, effort and a willingness to do what's necessary to help his team. That versatility and industry are hallmarks of Arena's players, boding well for Saief's chances to play significant minutes in the Gold Cup.
The United States is not awash with left-sided players, though the depth in that area is improving. There's still room for a player like Saief to have a good Gold Cup and make a case for more time going forward. Arena will no doubt hope that he has found a young, trustworthy option -- perhaps for two different roles -- that will be at the ready if and when the U.S. boss needs to fill a tactical hole or replace a player due to injury.
Saief is a Champions League-level player in a second-tier European league. That's a strong resume and makes him more than worthy of considerable attention during this Gold Cup. It's a perfect time to prove that not only does he belong post-switch, but that he can be an asset to the team in the years ahead.