Mexico looks like the pick of the crop
The field of 12 has been reduced to eight as the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup moves into its second weekend of play starting on Saturday with two matches at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. The U.S. and Mexico headline a group of six teams from the region to advance to the quarterfinals, along with Colombia and South Africa.
No real surprises transpired during group play, as the favorites are moving on, and the minnows are traveling back home. That should all change in the knockout rounds, as all the tinkering that several of the teams did with their lineups from game to game should stop now that one bad performance means an exit from the tournament.
Here's a look at the eight teams that remain in the Gold Cup, ranked from one through eight.
1. Mexico -- Despite not having many of its first-team players available for this tournament, the tricolores are the defending champions of the Gold Cup, as well as the region's top side. After getting a wakeup call by losing in the opening match to South Africa, Mexico responded with vigor by crushing Guatemala 4-0 and with a Group C-clinching victory over Jamaica on Wednesday night. Powerful striker Jared Borgetti has two goals, thus far, and will likely be a menace to each of Mexico's remaining opponents. Mexico play Colombia on Sunday at Reliant Stadium in Houston in front of what should be considered a virtual home game due to the city's strong Mexican population.
2. United States -- Bruce Arena has mixed and matched his lineups through the team's first three games, which has allowed him to look at several non-regulars, but the U.S. has yet to produce a standout performance. Even so, the U.S. won Group B with victories over Cuba and Canada to go with a 0-0 tie against Costa Rica on Tuesday night. The quarterfinal matchup against Jamaica should be intriguing since the Reggae Boyz are a side that always presents them with problems. As usual, the Americans will rely on the attacking abilities of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, as well as the strong goalkeeping of Kasey Keller. Keep an eye on World Cup 2002 hero John O'Brien, who has played well in group play since returning to the side after a two-year absence due to a series of injuries.
3. South Africa -- Has already had a bit of an up-and-down tournament, as the elation over being Mexico in the opening match was quickly soured by a 3-3 tie to Jamaica and a 1-1 tie to Guatemala on Wednesday night to end up with a second place finish in Group C. As a guest nation in the Gold Cup, the South Africans are more of a mystery to the CONCACAF sides, especially due to the fact that many of their known entities, such as Manchester United's Quinton Fortune, did not make the trip. However, their opponents are quickly realizing that the World Cup regulars have a lot of speed and a slew of talented attacking players. All six goals have come from different players, including Elrio Van Heerden, who had the game-winner against Mexico last week. Should South Africa get by Panama on Sunday, they'll likely have a rematch with Mexico in the semifinals on July 21 at Giants Stadium.
4. Honduras -- Never underestimate a hot team, especially one that has something to prove. No longer alive in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Honduras is hoping to gain back some of the respect it earned in CONCACAF qualifying for the last World Cup when they beat both Mexico and the U.S. and finished in fourth place. After starting off with a tie against Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras defeated both Colombia and Panama to win Group A. They head into their quarterfinal matchup against Costa Rica on Saturday led by Wilmer Velasquez, who has scored two goals during the tournament, and Chicago Fire defender Samuel Caballeros, whose goal against Panama on Wednesday night clinched the group for his side.
5. Jamaica -- The Reggae Boyz can't be too upset with a 1-1-1 record in the tournament's Group of Death along with Mexico and South Africa. With a little luck against Mexico, Jamaica could have won the group on Wednesday night. Getting the chance to take on the Americans is probably something this side relishes after earning ties against Bruce Arena's side in both matches during the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying last fall.
One of the players that has created a buzz during this tournament has been midfielder Jermaine Hue, who has scored two goals and opened the eyes of many scouts in attendance. For Jamaica to beat the U.S. and move on to the semifinals, they'll likely have to come out strong and try to get the Gillette Stadium crowd out of it early. Look for the visitors to count on players such as striker Damani Ralph, midfielder Andy Williams and defender Tyrone Marshall, who know the U.S. players best from playing in Major League Soccer.
6. Costa Rica -- The Ticos will be playing a Honduran side that they went 0-1-1 against in the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, yet still managed to win the group and advance to the final round while Honduras did not. So these sides know each other well, and will likely produce one of the more entertaining matches of the four that will be played this weekend.
Manager Alexander Guimaraes said that he has been most pleased with the play of his young defenders during the tournament since they got through group play with two shutouts and only one goal against. The performance that 21-year-old Randall Brenes with two goals has been impressive, as well. Getting into the semifinals or beyond at the Gold Cup would be the spark the Ticos need heading into the final five matches of World Cup qualifying - three of which are on the road.
7. Colombia -- This once powerful soccer nation needed a victory over Trinidad & Tobago in its final game of group play just to advance as a third-place team. That's not exactly what this side was expecting upon entering this tournament as an out-of-region guest, even despite sending an under-strength team. With one of the youngest rosters in the Gold Cup, including 20-year-old Abel Aguilar who tallied against T & T on Tuesday night, Colombia will likely be in for a rude awakening when they face the Mexicans on Sunday.
8. Panama -- It hasn't been the worst of showing for the Reds, as their 1-1-1 record seems par for the course in a group with Honduras, Colombia and Trinidad & Tobago. Just reaching the quarterfinals in a tournament like the Gold Cup is a major accomplishment for a side that has never even come close to qualifying for a World Cup. As the U.S. knows so well from playing this side three times over the past year, Panama has some talented attacking players. If tall target striker Ricardo Phillips and partner Luis Tejada (two goals in three games) can link up well with creative midfielder Julio Medina, South Africa might be in for a nail-biter on Sunday.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.