By Chrös McDougall | June 18, 2019, 5:45 p.m. (ET)

Christian Pulisic competes during a match against England on Nov. 15, 2018 in London.

 

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A dark period in U.S. men’s soccer officially gives way to a new era tonight.

After 20 months without a competitive match, the result of a stunning upset against Trinidad & Tobago that left the U.S. out of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Americans once again have something on the line when they open their Gold Cup campaign against Guyana.

The sparkling new Allianz Field in St. Paul is a fitting place to start.

Led by new coach Gregg Berhalter, who took over in December, the U.S. men’s national team features just three players with World Cup experience and six who were on the team from that night in Trinidad. Instead, a new generation led by 20-year-old midfielders Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie is ready to take over.

Following a stretch of 18 friendlies and the longest competitive layoff for the team since a 38-month break in the 1980s, tonight’s match can’t come soon enough for the U.S. team and its fans.

“We’re looking forward to getting out and playing,” Berhalter said Monday night. “You can see the focus kind of shifted with the group this week, we’ve got everyone back on the field, the intensity picked up and the guys just want to play now.”

After opening the tournament against Guyana, a team ranked No. 144 in the world and taking part in its first Gold Cup, the U.S. faces Trinidad & Tobago in a grudge match on Saturday in Cleveland. The Americans wrap up the group stage on June 26 in Kansas City, Kansas, when they face Panama, which made its World Cup debut in 2018.

The top eight teams advance to the knockout round, with the championship game set for July 7 in Chicago.

The Americans are the defending champions of the biennial competition that serves as the championship for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and they’ll be expected to contend again this year, with Mexico and Jamaica among the other favorites. However, there remains some trepidation among fans.

Since his arrival last year, Berhalter has been installing a new system of play, a process that remains a work in progress. Some excitement leading into the Gold Cup was damped when the team — albeit playing without full-strength lineups — dropped two friendlies earlier this month, falling 1-0 to Jamaica and then 3-0 to Venezuela.

Much, too, has been made of the names not on the Gold Cup roster, notably veteran defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, as well as 20-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams, all of whom will miss the tournament with injuries.

Even Berhalter has been downplaying expectations, making clear in recent days that a seventh Gold Cup championship would be nice to have, but the overarching goal of this year’s tournament is to continue that progression toward 2022.

“For us it’s just managing it step by step, not getting ahead of ourselves, and hopefully having something that we can be proud of at the end of this tournament,” he said.

After the last two years, any trepidation about this team is understandable.

There is plenty of room for optimism, too.

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That starts with the 20-year-olds. Although Adams will miss the Gold Cup, Pulisic and McKennie are expected to play major roles for the U.S. — both in the Gold Cup and in years to come.

Pulisic, an attacking midfielder, was one of the bright spots for the U.S. during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, and he’s since parlayed a strong run at Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s top division into a $73 million move to Chelsea, one of the top teams in England’s Premier League. That price tag for Pulisic, who will join the West London team for the coming season, is by far the most expensive ever for a U.S. player.

Though he has often played out wide at Dortmund, Pulisic is expected to play in more of a central role with the national team.

McKennie, meanwhile, has emerged as a regular for FC Schalke 04, which also plays in Germany’s top division. To this point, he’s only played in friendlies for the U.S.

“It’s my first international competition where there’s a medal at the end, so I expect it to be a little bit different,” he said. “It’s always more competitive I think whenever you’re playing for a title at the end versus whenever you know it's a friendly game.”

Among the other up-and-coming players expected to take a leading role at the Gold Cup is 24-year-old goalie Zack Steffen. With longtime starter Tim Howard no longer in the picture, Steffen has emerged as the replacement. After four seasons with the Columbus Crew — playing three of them under Berhalter — Steffen will join England’s Manchester City in July, though he’s expected to then be loaned to German team Fortuna Dusseldorf.

“Zack’s one of those guys, like Weston and like Christian, who are playing in their first big tournaments,” Berhalter said. “We’re excited because we believe in these guys, we believe they have a lot of potential.”

Those young players will join a veteran core that includes 2008 Olympians Michael Bradley (midfielder) and Jozy Altidore (forward), and defender Omar Gonzales, the three returning players with World Cup experience.

All together it’s a group that will look quite different from the one that led the last World Cup qualifying campaign. With plenty of time to prepare for this tournament, though, it’s a group that feels ready to finally play for a trophy.

“We have to have unity, everyone is there for each other, and I think everyone will back each out other on the field,” McKennie said, “so I think we’ll be all right.”

Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.