No Pulisic, no point? Five reasons why USMNT fans should still care about the Gold Cup

Berhalter Dike Busion split
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The U.S. will be without some big names, but this summer could still have a major impact on World Cup qualifying this fall

Take a quick look at the U.S. men's national team's Gold Cup squad and the first thing you'll notice is not the names listed, but rather the ones that aren't.

There's no Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie. There's no Tyler Adams or Sergino Dest either. Yunus Musah? Gio Reyna? Brendan Aaronson? John Brooks? Nope, they aren't in the squad either.

And that's for good reason, as the U.S. begins this summer's Gold Cup with one eye on the tournament and another staring down an absolutely crucial World Cup qualifying campaign that begins this fall.

This squad was picked with those World Cup qualifiers in mind, and rightfully so, with head coach Gregg Berhalter opting to give his biggest stars some much-needed rest following a gruelling European season.

In their place is a squad heavy on MLS players and new faces, a team that looks far different than the one that made a statement by taking down Mexico just a few weeks ago. It's a different team with a different talent level, sure, but it's also a team that has its own storylines worth following.

With that said, let's take a look at five things to watch at the Gold Cup that could impact the entire USMNT in World Cup qualifying and beyond:

The continued emergence of Dike

There's perhaps no player with more to gain over the next few weeks than Daryl Dike, who could certainly put himself into contention to be the USMNT's go-to No.9 and seal a European move with a strong tournament.

Dike is now back with Orlando City after a fantastic loan spell with Barnsley, with the English club unable to come to terms on a deal to sign the young striker. Dike has been linked with several Premier League clubs in recent months, with a strong Gold Cup certainly helping pad his resume for any overseas club that's looking on.

However, after being left off the USMNT's final Nations League squad, Dike could also play his way straight into Berhalter's starting XI come qualifiers this fall.

His main competition, Josh Sargent, hasn't truly taken control of the job, despite making a game-saving clearance against Honduras in the Nations League. Jordan Siebatcheau is also a potential starter, but he, like Dike, is still very new to this program.

Daryl Dike USMNT 2020-21

For this summer, Dike will be competing with the likes of Gyasi Zardes, Nicholas Gioacchini and Matthew Hoppe, although Berhalter has said he sees the latter two featuring on the wing.

And, even if Berhalter does turn to the experience of Zardes, Dike is certainly guaranteed minutes at some point over the next few weeks, likely against an overmatched opponent that will struggle to defend him.

“He's developed really nicely over this last year," Berhalter said, "worked himself into the team, put himself in the equation to be a starter on his team when everyone's around and, to me, it's been a really strong, strong year for Daryl.

“We're looking forward to getting him into camp again and seeing what he can do at this level of competitive games.”

Those games will be Dike's next test and, should he pass, there's no telling what his next step could be.

Transfers on the horizon

Dike isn't the only USMNT player who could be playing for a new club come the end of the tournament, as several players head into the Gold Cup with uncertain futures.

Chief among them is Gianluca Busio, the young Sporting KC star that has been linked with a move to Serie A in recent weeks. The teenager is in his first USMNT camp – he's the second-youngest player to ever make a USMNT Gold Cup squad – and it's clear that there are European eyes looking on.

Cannon USMNT 2021

Busio is a dynamic young midfielder that has been in the spotlight since signing with Sporting KC at age 15, becoming the youngest player since Freddy Adu to sign an MLS deal in the process. In the years since, he's taken steady steps forward, refining the defensive parts of his game to become a more complete midfielder.

Reggie Cannon, a legitimate contender to start for the full-strength USMNT, is also potentially on the move from Boavista.

The former FC Dallas star signed with the Portuguese club, who planned to eventually move him to Lille, which was also owned by club owner Gerard Lopez. Well, Lopez has since sold, putting an end to that plan, with Cannon now back in the shop window for clubs in Europe's top leagues.

“Germany would be a dream,” Cannon recently told the Athletic . “I’ve seen the way fullbacks play in that league, [Wolfburg’s Kevin] Mbabu, [Dortmund’s Thomas] Meunier, all the other top fullbacks in the league.

"To be able to play in that league would be an incredible step in my career. That’s the league I most desire.”

Additionally, George Bello, the young Atlanta United defender, has also reportedly attracted European interest. He'll be battling Colorado Rapids defender Sam Vines for a place on the left.

Newcomers looking to make their mark

Of the 23 players, there are only five that are in line to earn their first caps, and all five are certainly worth watching out for.

We talked above about Busio, who will get the chance to make his debut at his home stadium in Kansas City during the group stage, but the midfield also features Eryk Williamson, who heads into camp with plenty to prove.

Williamson, like Busio, was controversially left off of the U.S. squad for Olympic qualifying, an omission that looks even more glaring following that team's failure, and the Portland Timbers midfielder's ability to gallop into the attack could now help the senior team.

Also left off that squad was James Sands, completing the trio of players excluded from the U-23 team that have now made the leap to the senior squad for, potentially, their international bows.

Eryk Williamson USA Venezuela U-20

"James Sands, if you remember at the end of the season, was out injured and was in a battle against time to be fit," Berhalter said. 

"He's a guy that we wanted in the December camp and the January camp for the national team and he wasn't able to because of his fitness, which also led to, with a guy being out since October, is he going to be ready for [Olympic] qualifiers in March?

"We didn't feel comfortable with that. That was something that went through [Jason Kreis'] head, so that ruled him out."

D.C. United rising star Donovan Pines is also in line for his first cap, having emerged as a top young centerback in MLS. Pines and Sands will face heavy competition to get on the field (more on that later), but the 23-year-old defender has certainly earned a look after truly breaking through for D.C. last year.

Rounding out the new faces is one that has certainly been in the limelight for the past 10 months or so: Hoppe.

The Schalke forward rose to prominence with an incredible goalscoring run in the Bundesliga, although it wasn't enough to save the club from relegation. Having been called into camp ahead of the Nations League, Hoppe is now in the squad and, according to Berhalter, could feature out wide.

A battle in central defense

Brooks has locked down one centerback spot, but the other is certainly up for grabs heading towards qualifiers.

Aaron Long is injured, ruling out what might just be the USMNT's second-best centerback for this tournament.

Of the European-based players, Mark McKenzie is in the mix, despite a gaffe in the Nations League, while Matt Miazga hasn't yet taken the leap into an international-caliber defender. Chris Richards is one to keep an eye on too although he's very, very young.

Meanwhile, two of the top contenders for that starting spot in central defense will now have their chance to shine at the Gold Cup.

Robinson Atlanta United 2021

Walker Zimmerman has long been one of the best in MLS, emerging as a regular with FC Dallas, a star with Los Angeles FC and, ultimately, a leader with Nashville SC. At 28, he's in his prime, and he's done well enough in his 14 caps to remain a contender heading into the fall.

Miles Robinson, meanwhile, is the dark horse. The Atlanta United defender is one of the best one-on-one defenders in MLS and, this season, his passing has taken a step forward. He can now hit those line-breaking passes that Berhalter loves so much, giving him a chance to become a USMNT centerback of the present and future.

"It's definitely something I've been working on ever since I've become a professional," he said, "but it's just a matter of understanding that to become great at a specific aspect of your game, that doesn't come overnight.

"You have to grind and continue to get better every day. You have to continue to train every day, and that's something I've been trying to focus on."

Heading into the tournament, Berhalter admitted that the squad was a little thing at centerback as he all-but-named Zimmerman and Robinson starters, giving them a chance to prove they deserve to be in the mix down the line.

CONCACAF's top dogs?

For all the talk of B teams and priorities, this is still a tournament, and every tournament ends with a trophy. Now, this trophy isn't the be-all and end-all, but it is another chance for the U.S. to put whatever bad feelings they have from the 2018 World Cup cycle behind them.

This is a new team with a new coach and lots of new players, but with that comes the need to prove yourself. The U.S. started that process by beating Mexico in the Nations League, but truly emerging from a missed World Cup requires a team to consistently prove that they are truly back.

Doing that this summer will be difficult, with Mexico bringing many of their top stars to this tournament. But what better way to prove you're ready for World Cup qualifying than going toe-to-toe with El Tri with a weakened squad?

Heading into this tournament, the U.S. is playing with house money. A win shows that the entire player pool has taken a step forward while sending a message to the rest of CONCACAF.

A loss? Well, this wasn't the A-team anyway; they'll be there in September.

“I talked about being able to affect a larger player pool, being able to have really good information on a broader pool based on the congestion of World Cup qualifying,” Berhalter said.

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“We get to work on another group, we get to solidify this pool [so] that when we go into qualifying, we know where everyone stands.”

So, this summer, the U.S. has the chance to truly assert themselves, to prove once again that this program has emerged from the missed World Cup.

There's a trophy on the line, of course, but this tournament could also be worth more than that for a group of players looking to take a leap forward.

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