ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As Gold Cup warm-ups go, Wednesday’s friendly against Jamaica is shaping up to be the tuneup before the tuneup for the United States men’s national team.
The bulk of the U.S. roster just arrived over the weekend, giving most of the players just two training sessions to prepare for the match. Linchpins Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams won’t even be available, as the duo won’t meet up with their international teammates until Thursday and next Tuesday, respectively.
The fact that neither player will be included doesn’t exactly get the blood boiling, but that is just fine with U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter. One player’s absence is another’s opportunity, especially with Berhalter set to name his Gold Cup roster after Wednesday’s encounter. And while it might disappoint some fans eager to see the first-choice U.S. lineup, it will provide an opportunity for Berhalter to establish some depth. The subsequent friendly against Venezuela on Sunday will look more like Berhalter’s preferred American starting 11.
The most intriguing choice for Berhalter on Wednesday is who will replace Pulisic in the lineup. Finding an additional creative option remains a priority for the U.S. manager. Most of the options scream more No. 8 than No. 10, though Berhalter didn’t sound too stressed about the challenge at Tuesday’s news conference.
“In terms of those positions, offensively they operate pretty similar in terms of we want them in the pocket, we want them turning, we want them activating the winger,” Berhalter said.
He later added: “I think it’s a system game that we play, and Christian has a role in that system.
“He may be able to execute his role better than others, but others can fit into the system as well.”
Sebastian Lletget was thought to be an option, but a hamstring injury sustained the LA Galaxy’s 2-1 defeat to the New England Revolution last weekend will likely render him unavailable. That leaves one of Cristian Roldan, Djordje Mihailovic or Duane Holmes to occupy an advanced role in tandem with Weston McKennie.
Both Roldan and Mihailovic have made inroads with the national team since the start of the year. Roldan has offered a steadier, two-way presence. When the U.S. midfield looked like it was about to be overrun in the March draw against Chile, it was Roldan who helped solidify things.
“Being able to create a little bit more, that’s usually Pulisic’s job,” Roldan told ESPN FC. “In my position with the national team, it’s a little bit more of a hybrid between a No. 10 and a No. 6.
“But when I’m in that spot, in those soft pockets, being able to turn and make an impact on the game offensively is what I’m looking for.”
Mihailovic has more attacking upside, and made a positive impression in a 3-0 victory against an overmatched Panama side in Berhalter’s debut in January.
“Whenever I have an opportunity to get called into camp, I take it the same way, no matter the circumstances around it,” he said in an exclusive interview.
“It’s an opportunity for me to show what I can provide for the team and what Gregg is looking for out of me. It’s an opportunity where whether it’s the No. 10 or the No. 8, I have to play the same way whether Christian is here or not.”
Holmes is the wild card, given that this is his first call-up to the U.S. team. His lack of familiarity with Berhalter’s system makes a start unlikely, though for the U.S manager, Holmes’ versatility is intriguing.
“He’s one of those Weston McKennie-type of players where you can put him anywhere on the field and he can hold his own,” Berhalter said of Holmes.
An opportunity beckons for right-back Nick Lima as well. Not only is Adams getting some rest, but hernia surgery has rendered DeAndre Yedlin unavailable for the summer as well. So regardless of whether Berhalter opts to assign Lima the hybrid right-back/central midfield role or something more conventional, the San Jose Earthquakes defender figures to get at least some playing time.
Lima has proved himself adaptable in recent months for club and country. He has been filling in at left-back for San Jose lately after beginning the season on the right.
“I’m going to prepare even if [I’m asked] to play goalie,” Lima joked, before acknowledging that jumping from one flank to the other has its challenges.
“Being on the left, it’s a lot different than what people expect.
“Instinct with the right, that’s one thing. Instinct with the left, that’s another to be built upon. It’s a challenge, but that’s what I enjoy and that’s what I’m trying to improve all the time. I’m kind of forgetting what foot I am right now.”
Jamaica should provide some ideal preparation for U.S. group opponents Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. The Reggae Boyz are experienced and plenty mobile. Jamaica has also found its best results in and around the Gold Cup, reaching the final in the past two tournaments.
“We see it as a good opportunity for this group,” Berhalter said. “We also realize that it’s not going to be easy, things won’t always go our way and we’re prepared to deal with that.”
For those players who can manage Wednesday’s challenges best, a spot on the Gold Cup roster lies ahead.