Can anyone upset Gold Cup heavyweights Mexico, United States?
There isn't much about the CONCACAF Gold Cup that is sexy. Holding the tournament every two years invites a certain amount of fatigue. Invariably, with a crowded summer international calendar, one version becomes watered down as the best teams -- read Mexico and the United States -- opt to send their B-teams.
That isn't to say that the Gold Cup is devoid of value, however. The winner of the tournament will be halfway toward qualification for the 2021 Confederations Cup. But for many of the participants, how that value is calculated varies from country to country.
The U.S. and Mexico are co-favorites to win the tournament. What else is new, right? Since the confederation championship was revamped in 1991, the two countries have claimed 12 of the 13 tournaments contested. But both teams are also looking to determine which fringe players might be counted on for next year's World Cup, though the Americans still have a bit more work to do in terms of securing qualification.
Mexico's exertions in the Confederations Cup mean that no frontline players will be available. Defender Ugo Ayala is the most experienced outfield player with 30 caps. Alan Pulido's injury has created an opening for Houston Dynamo forward Erick "Cubo" Torres.
The U.S. boasts a bit more experience with the World Cup veterans Omar Gonzalez, Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Brad Guzan all on the roster. More could arrive after the group stage when teams are allowed to make up to six roster changes. But for now, eyes will be on players like Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty as they try to stake their claim to more playing time.
Overall, it will be a shock if the U.S. and Mexico don't meet in the final on July 26, but as the 2015 edition showed when Jamaica ambushed the U.S. in the semifinals, upsets have been known to happen.
Looking for a breakthrough
The tournament comes with only four games remaining in the final round of World Cup qualifying, so for the likes of Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama, the value comes primarily from testing out some new players while also trying to fine-tune some things ahead of the next round of games in September.
When it comes to the Gold Cup, all three of these teams have beaten finalists in the past, but Costa Rica looks to have brought in more of its first-choice lineup, putting it in a good position to make a deep run. The Ticos will be tested early, as its group is probably the toughest in the tournament, one that includes Honduras, Canada and French Guiana.
Panama will be looking to build off its third-place finish in 2015, though oddly enough it failed to win a game in that tournament outside of prevailing on penalties. Manager Hernan Dario Gomez will be aiming to get his offense going, having scored only four goals in the Hexagonal.
Honduras has the opposite problem. Los Catrachos stand in fifth place thanks to a Hexagonal-worst defense, so manager Jorge Luis Pinto will be looking to see more consistency from his backline.
That still leaves seven other teams possessing a variety of motivations. For Canada -- who in 2000 became the only team other than Mexico and the U.S. to have won the Gold Cup -- this will mark the first tournament with manager Octavio Zambrano in charge. And his roster choices are notable in that he has the only player in the entire tournament who was born in the 1970s (Patrice Bernier) and in the 2000s (Alphonso Davies).
In Jamaica and El Salvador, you have a pair of teams very much in remodel mode. Jamaica's World Cup qualifying campaign was hugely disappointing after reaching the Gold Cup final in 2015. The Reggae Boyz needed a last-minute goal from Simon Dawkins just to get past Nicaragua in the third round. Jamaica then finished dead last in its group in the semifinal round, and was eliminated. Manager Theodore Whitmore will be aiming to get his side going again with the help of several MLS players, including Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, and Portland Timbers striker Darren Mattocks.
El Salvador is now four years removed from a match-fixing scandal that decimated the national side, with 14 players getting lifetime bans. Los Cuscatlecos' midfield is led by the San Jose Earthquakes' Darwin Ceren, but a youthful backline will determine whether El Salvador can reach the knockout stages.
The French twist
For Martinique and French Guiana, the Gold Cup marks the pinnacle of their international aspirations. Both are overseas departments of France, and thus not members of FIFA, which prevents both from competing in the World Cup. Given that the rosters of both sides are dominated by players from their respective domestic leagues and the lower divisions of French soccer, one might scoff at their inclusion. But there is some history of French departments doing damage in the Gold Cup. Back in 2007, Guadeloupe, with French international defender Jocelyn Angloma in its ranks, made it all the way to the semifinals, where it was only beaten by mighty Mexico, 1-0.
Martinique reached the quarterfinals in 2002, and has former Seattle Sounder Kevin Parsemain leading its front line. French Guiana's team includes former France international Florent Malouda.
If you need an underdog to root for, Curacao is the team for you. The island competed internationally as the Netherlands Antilles until its dissolution in 2010. More recently, Curacao has become a rising force in Caribbean soccer, and produced a shock when it beat Jamaica 2-1 to claim the 2017 Caribbean Cup. Elson Hooi, who has been on the books of NAC Breda in the past, is the guy to watch for a side making its Gold Cup debut.
Nicaragua is making its first Gold Cup appearance since 2009 but has shown it can put a scare into teams, as witnessed by the aforementioned set-to with Jamaica. Los Pinoleros owe their spot in the tournament to Juan Barrera, who in a playoff against Haiti bagged a hat trick in the last eight minutes to claim a 4-3 aggregate triumph.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.