A tournament used by Coach Bob Bradley to look at potential World Cup backups in a competitive environment went reasonably well until the final. Mexico exploited its speed on the flanks, a sharp tactical plan devised by Coach Javier Aguirre, and a relatively inexperienced U.S. squad to hammer home five goals in the second half and atone somewhat for not only an 11-game winless streak on U.S. soil, but that infamous 2-0 loss in the 2002 World Cup that ended Aguirre's first stint in charge.
For a variety of reasons, many players who could have bolstered their bids for World Cup places were unable to do so at the Gold Cup. Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones and UNL Tigres defender Edgar Castillo are not yet eligible to play for the United States. Chivas USA teammates Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan were left off the roster, as were DaMarcus Beasley, Jose Francisco Torres and Eddie Johnson. Freddy Adu played just two matches before leaving to join Benfica's preseason camp. Keeper Marcus Hahnemann hasn't been called up by Bradley since 2007.
Had Castillo, who has played three times for Mexico but can change allegiances under the revised FIFA statutes because he has yet to appear in a competitive match, played in the Gold Cup he might have displayed two elements still in short supply; left-sidedness, and blistering pace in the back. Bradley won't have many chances to test him if his application is tendered and approved, yet neither of the incumbents, Bornstein nor Heath Pearce has looked secure enough to back up probable starter Carlos Bocanegra.
Jonathan Spector has played left back in the past, including a match against Scotland for the USA in 2005, but played only right back in South Africa. As such, while Pearce held his own at left back until the Gold Cup final - in which just about the entire team collapsed in the final 30 minutes - he'll need a few more strong games to solidify a place in the final 23. Michael Orozco has yet to play for the USA this year.
Pearce served a few decent crosses in the tournament and despite losing his corner to the occasional overlap or scything dribble, performed decently. But at the Concacaf level dozens of Americans have shown well during the past two decades only to falter against teams from Europe and South America, not to mention Africa. Pearce not only has to find a club, he has to play enough at a demanding level to improve, because his status quo isn't good enough.
And was it lack of recent action for a club team, or just plain bad play, that plagued some of the Americans, such as Beasley, at the Confederations Cup?
Carlos Vela hasn't played much in the past year, either, for Mexico but that didn't stop him from blitzing the Americans in the Gold Cup final. However he did play 29 matches in all competitions for Arsenal last season. Beasley played in just 12 games for Glasgow Rangers yet Bradley values experience, and so Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni can't be eliminated just yet.
If left back is an empty room, right back is a crowded house as the primary position for Spector, Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk. All three deserve a place but one could be shut out.
At the start of the year, former Dallas defender Clarence Goodson went to, appropriately enough, Norwegian club IK Start. He certainly ranked behind Columbus and MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall at that point; during the Gold Cup, playing side-by-side, not much separated them. They played well individually as well as a tandem. But will either be ready to contribute in a World Cup given their club situations, or does 2006 veteran Jimmy Conrad, who turns 33 next year, retain the upper hand? And since Michael Parkhurst got a recall but no time in the Gold Cup semifinal or final, his 2010 prospects are dim.
Both Marshall or Goodson are blessed with good size, decent feet, and that tenacious streak no defender can survive without. Some of the balls Goodson played out of the back at the Gold Cup were superb; he hit two or three in the final alone that deserved better conclusions. And Marshall's prowess in the air is exceptional, though he wasn't able to outjump the Mexican defenders on set plays. Goodson did knock down a Stuart Holden corner kick that triggered a furious goalmouth scramble that failed to net a goal and left Goodson's nose bloodied. He also nailed home a header in the semifinal against Honduras.
During the Gold Cup, the USA broke through a barrier of seldom scoring except during set plays. A few of the goals, like those at the Confederations Cup, featured incisive, clever interplay as well as sharp finishing. Still, it needed a sensational last-second strike by Holden to tie Haiti, and a penalty kick won and converted by Kenny Cooper to subdue Panama in overtime.
Even though he labored in the final, Holden's gritty yet skillful play stood out, as did his serves on corner kicks and free kicks. His work rate is greater than that of Clint Dempsey; unlike Dempsey, he understands that just by dropping back into good positions, whether or not he wins a tackle or picks off a pass, he's helping his team in several ways. He's more suited to a wide midfield role, as well, and can also slide into the middle, which is where he now plays for Houston, though he's not Dempsey's match in finishing or dribbling, and doesn't play in the EPL.
Santino Quaranta earned a recall and scored his first international goal at RFK Stadium against Honduras. He has a wonderful touch and creative streak but needs callups and solid games in the Hexagonal to stay on the edge of the radar screen.
Robbie Rogers isn't as consistent as Holden but plays regularly for the Crew at left mid, which aside from the Landon Donovan option, has no iron-clad starter. Rogers has the pace to get in behind defenses and his passing and crossing, though still inconsistent, have improved, but probably not yet enough to merit a World Cup slot. Like Holden, he puts in an honest defensive effort, though his abilities in that department are limited.
Central mid is also crowded. Kyle Beckerman's stellar play for Real Salt Lake earned him a Gold Cup spot and he responded, as did Logan Pause.
Brian Ching can't fill the shoes of Brian McBride, but he's just as determined and rugged and fearless. Without a quantum leap by Cooper, who scored twice in four appearances as a sub but fared poorly as a starter against Haiti, Ching is the big man up top until further notice though he scored just one goal in five Gold Cup matches.
There are five World Cup qualifiers remaining. Each will reveal more player information. As the situations stand right now here's a look at how the 23 World Cup spots could be filled out, excluding those who have yet to play for the USA:
USA WORLD CUP 23
Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Troy Perkins.
Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector, Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Frankie Hedjuk, Heath Pearce.
Midfielders: Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Brian Ching, Charlie Davies, Eddie Johnson.