Stuart Holden has a soft spot for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“I love this tournament,” the Fox Sports broadcaster and former national team midfielder said. “Any time you put on the national team jersey, it’s an opportunity.”
Holden’s first opportunity came in the 2009 Gold Cup and he made the most of it, scoring 21 minutes into his international debut, then earning a place on the all-tournament team. Eleven months later, he had a seat on the U.S. charter to South Africa and the World Cup.
He’s not the only player who used Gold Cup success as a springboard to a World Cup appearance. Since 1993, 17 others came into the continental championship tournament with 10 or fewer international caps but wound up making such a good impression they won a place on the next World Cup team, a list that includes Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey.
More could make the jump next summer. Coach Bruce Arena, who took over the national team only eight months ago, has used this month’s Gold Cup to audition a dozen players he was unfamiliar with. And many have taken advantage of the opportunity, playing themselves into consideration for the Russia 2018 roster while helping the U.S. reach Wednesday’s Gold Cup final against Jamaica at Levi’s Stadium.
“We have a very good understanding of our player pool now,” Arena said Monday. “Which is a real positive coming out of this tournament.
“I’m observing the players and looking at their habits and trying to learn as much as I can. It’s not only game day. You look at the qualities of players both on and off the field. I think I know who our top 44 players are.”
Lichaj started four games in the 2011 Gold Cup but fell out of favor with the national team after dropping from Premier League side Aston Villa to Nottingham Forest, which plays in the second division of English soccer.
He has played twice in this tournament, scoring a first-half goal in a quarterfinal victory over El Salvador, and could start again in Wednesday’s final.
“He fits in well with the team,” Arena said. “That’s a position where we need help. It’s nice to know that Eric’s a player we can depend on.”
Others who probably played well enough to merit another look are midfielders Kelyn Rowe, Paul Arriola and Kellyn Acosta, forward Dom Dwyer and defender Matt Hedges.
Donovan said that the Gold Cup is an important evaluation tool because it’s a competitive tournament with as many as six games in less than three weeks, a schedule even more demanding than the World Cup.
“You don’t want a guy who can only play twice and then they’re exhausted and spent,” said Donovan, who played all five games in the 2002 Gold Cup for Arena before starting five times in the World Cup that summer.
He has done that, playing 27 of the 29 players he called up for the Gold Cup. That’s important not just for the coaching staff but for the players as well since it gives them a chance to see how their style of play fits the demands of international competition.
“You have to know that you’re not going to get away with a lot of the things that you would [in MLS],” Holden said. “That’s the most important thing. You have to be good on both sides of the ball. There’s no room for passengers in this team.”
Holden proved that to himself, and to coach Bob Bradley, in the 2009 Gold Cup. A year later he was playing in the Americans’ World Cup opener in South Africa.
“You don’t get many chances at this level,” he said. “There’s a reason this is the best of the best. You’ve had your shot and if you get in and maybe didn’t make enough of an impact, then I honestly think having a taste of this experience makes you that much hungrier.
“You just try to be a better player all around. Guys will look back on this opportunity.”