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Mexico and U.S. likely to clash in Gold Cup final

Whether it was because CONCACAF officials wanted to hold a true regional championship, or because the federation could not secure any high-profile nations, there will be no guest countries in this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. This time neither Brazil or Colombia will be around to knock off one of the region's heavyweights and keep us from seeing another installment of the always fierce U.S.-Mexico rivalry.

It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that the U.S. national team and Mexico will meet in Chicago on June 24 in the Gold Cup final. And although there is truth to the notion that the Gold Cup field is weaker than it has been in a decade, that does not mean there aren't some countries poised to play the role of spoiler.

Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica will all field teams with quality attacking options that should make for entertaining games while Haiti, Canada and Guatemala are improved enough from recent years to pull off an upset or two along the way.

The lack of overall strength in the field has as much to do with conflicts and the decline of certain traditional powers as it does with the absence of guest nations. Jamaica, a long-time Gold Cup participant, failed to qualify, and Trinidad & Tobago, just a year removed from a somewhat surprising World Cup showing, will field a makeshift squad because of a conflict over World Cup bonus payments.

Injuries have also put a damper on the level of talent that will be on display. Honduran striker David Suazo, a star for Italian club Cagliari who has been linked to a move to Inter Milan, will miss the tournament, as will Haitian striker and FC Brondby standout Jean-Philippe Peguero. Guatemala's midfield maestro, Freddy Thompson, and Costa Rica's dynamic attacking midfielder Bryan Ruiz are also out with injuries.

The star-power void will be filled, as always, by the United States and Mexico, which will both be favorites to roll through the tournament. New coaches, Bob Bradley for the U.S. and Hugo Sanchez for Mexico, will be looking to make this the first trophy they each win as they prepare the region's powers for the road to the 2010 World Cup.

Will the favorites get to the final? They haven't met in the Gold Cup since 1998, however, in most cases that fact can be attributed to losses to guest nations. This time around it will be up to CONCACAF's other countries to spoil the latest installment of U.S.-Mexico. Are any of these teams really up to playing the role of spoiler? We are about to find out.

2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup

GROUP A

COSTA RICA




FIFA ranking -- 52.

Gold Cup 2005 -- Reached quarterfinals, lost to Honduras (3-2).

Players to watch -- Alvaro Saborio (Sion/Switzerland), Rolando Fonseca (Alajuelense), Walter Centeno (Deportivo Saprissa), Cristian Bolanos (Odense Boldklub, Denmark),

Outlook -- The "Ticos" were widely regarded as the third-strongest team coming into the tournament, but recent injuries to key attacking players Alonso Solis (Deportivo Saprissa) and Bryan Ruiz (Gent, Belgium) weaken coach Hernan Medford's attack. Solis, the leading scorer in Costa Rica's first division, suffered a knee injury in last weekend's friendly against Chile, while Ruiz suffered a broken collarbone in the same match.

Saborio is a top goal scorer in the Swiss first division who could be paired up top with the veteran Fonseca. Bolanos, regarded as one of the best young talents in CONCACAF, just completed a move to Denmark and could be asked to pick up the scoring slack. Randall Azofeifa will be asked to replace the playmaking contributions of his club teammate Ruiz.

Costa Rica still has enough attacking options to win Group A, but the recent injuries could open the door for Canada and Haiti to take the group.

CANADA




FIFA ranking -- 94

Gold Cup 2005 -- Failed to advance past the group stage.

Players to watch -- Julian De Guzman (Deportivo La Coruna/Spain), Atiba Hutchinson (FC Copenhagen), Dwayne De Rosario (Houston Dynamo), Paul Stalteri (Tottenham Hotspur).

Outlook -- One of the more intriguing teams in the field, Canada boasts one of the best collections of midfield talent in the Gold Cup but its defense is a major weakness.

The key for the Canadians will be controlling possession, which it has the personnel to do. De Rosario, De Guzman and Hutchinson are all dynamic attackers who can keep the pressure on opponents to defend honestly and not send too many numbers at that shaky Canadian back line. Coach Stephen Hart may have to think long and hard about starting one of his many midfield talents in the back line to offer support.

What remains to be seen is who will score the goals on this squad. Rob Friend is the only outright striker on the roster and he just came off a season without much playing time for Heerenveen. Hutchinson is the team's Mr. Versatility, capable of scoring goals at forward or cementing the defense.

If Canada can find a serviceable defense, then the Canucks could win this group. If they do, a semifinal meeting against the U.S. national team could be in the cards.

HAITI




FIFA ranking -- 85

Gold Cup 2005 -- Did not qualify.

Players to watch -- Cadete Eliphine (Tempete FC), Alexandre Boucicaut (Violette FC), Frantz Bertin (Atletico Madrid), Jean-Jacques Pierre (Nantes)

Outlook -- The Caribbean champions have been one of the hottest teams in the region the past year and will enter the tournament as a popular pick to pull off an upset or two.

The Haitians boast a dynamic attack and physical defense that will be tougher for opponents to crack than people realize. Danish League striker Jean-Philippe Peguero is out with an injury but Haiti still has a strong table of attacking players, including Eliphine, Boucicaut and Fabrice Noel.

With the way the Haitians are playing it will be tough to bet against them, even against a Canada team with more well-known talent. Haiti is a safe bet to reach the quarterfinals, either as a second or third place team, and should have the edge in crowd support in Miami, which will help.

GUADELOUPE




FIFA ranking -- Not ranked

Gold Cup 2005 -- First appearance

Players to watch -- Jocelyn Angloma, David Sommiel (Sheffield United), Aurelien Capoue (Nantes, France), Loic Loval (FC Utrecht, Holland).

Outlook -- If you never knew that a country called Guadeloupe existed, its because one doesn't. Guadeloupe is a department of France, located in the Caribbean. The tiny Island is considered a region of France and it has helped produce some of the best soccer players to ever play for France, including Thierry Henry, Louis Saha, Sylvain Wiltord and William Gallas, all of whose families descended from Guadeloupe.

So what about this Gold Cup team? How well Guadeloupe does will depend largely on how many of the European-based players called up by coach Roger Salnot actually show up. Angloma, a 41-year-old former French national team player, is Mr. Reliable for this bunch, though it is a bit much to ask a man his age to perform well in an international tournament.

If the Euro-based players, such as English Premier League veteran David Sommeil, show up then Guadeloupe stands a good chance of avoiding going 0-3. Without them, this tiny Island team is in for a rude welcome to international tournament play.

GROUP B

USA




FIFA ranking -- 29

Gold Cup 2005 -- Champions

Players to watch -- Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Eddie Johnson.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Guatemala,
June 7
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
9 p.m. ET

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago,
June 9
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
5 p.m. ET

U.S. vs. El Salvador,
June 12
Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
7 p.m. ET

Outlook -- The U.S. team comes into the tournament brimming with confidence under new full-time coach Bob Bradley. It doesn't hurt that the Americans have already beaten a full-strength Mexico squad earlier this year.

The key, as always, is Donovan, who is the team's most dynamic player. Just as important for the Americans is finding a forward to help Landon Donovan pick up the scoring slack, something the U.S. team didn't have in the last Gold Cup. Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman are both on form in MLS and one of them should be able to produce.

The U.S. defense has some solid players, but the unit isn't exactly brimming with experience. Howard is coming off a stellar season in England and he should give some confidence to a back line that may not be tested until the knockout round.

Can the Americans repeat? There is no reason they shouldn't. Well, there is one, and its name is Mexico, which will be looking to end the U.S. team's dominance on American soil.

GUATEMALA




FIFA ranking -- 87

Gold Cup 2005 -- Failed to advance past group stage.

Players to watch -- Carlos Ruiz (FC Dallas), Dwight Pezzarossi (CSD Comunicaciones), Sebastian Melgar (Antofagasta/Chile), Gustavo Cabrera (CSD Comunicaciones), Leonel Noriega (Deportivo Marquense).

Outlook -- Coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who guided Ecuador to the World Cup in 2002, faces the challenge of leading Guatemala to its first Gold Cup victory in five tournaments. There is reason to be optimistic that he can do it considering Guatemala tied the United States in March in Dallas, and the other two teams in Group B are weak squads.

The key, as always, is getting the ball to Carlos Ruiz. The FC Dallas striker is one of the region's best, but he can't do it all on his own. Guatemala will sorely miss captain and star midfielder Freddy Thompson, who is out with an injury. Without him, Guatemala will likely rely on steady wing service from Carlos Figueroa and Jose Manuel Contreras to Ruiz and organized defense to knock off underdogs El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago.

How far will Guatemala go? A second-round berth is very likely, with a potential quarterfinal against Costa Rica a strong possibility.

EL SALVADOR




FIFA ranking -- 144

Gold Cup 2005 -- Failed to qualify.

Players to watch -- Ronald Cerritos (San Salvador FC), Eliseo Quintanilla (San Salvador FC),

Outlook -- The glory days of the '80s are long gone for this former Central American power. There are enough solid veterans on this roster to keep El Salvador from finishing at the bottom of the group. There isn't enough firepower here, however, to make us believe this team can earn a top-two place. A first-round exit looks likely.

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO




FIFA ranking -- 67

Gold Cup 2005 -- Failed to advance past group stage.

Players to watch -- Darryl Roberts (Sparta Rotterdam), Gary Glasgow (Joe Public FC), Silvio Spann (W Connection).

Outlook -- If you're wondering why a 2006 World Cup team is a long shot to get past the group stage in this tournament it is because a dispute over World Cup bonuses will prevent all of T&T's World Cup veterans from playing in the Gold Cup.

What does that leave the "Soca Warriors" with? Not much really. Roberts has been very impressive this year with this make-shift squad, but it will be T&T's defense that will spell doom against some quality strikers in this group.

GROUP C

MEXICO




FIFA ranking -- 20

Gold Cup 2005 -- Lost in quarterfinals to Colombia, 3-2.

Players to watch -- Rafael Marquez (Barcelona, Spain), Pavel Pardo (Stuttgart, Germany), Andres Guardado (Atlas), Carlos Salcido (PSV Eindhoven), Ricardo Osorio (Stuttgart).

Outlook -- Despite its loss to the U.S. national team in February, the Mexicans enter the tournament as favorites, in large part because of the form of some of its top players. Pardo and Osorio are fresh from helping Stuttgart win the German Bundesliga title, and Marquez is once again a key member of Barcelona's squad, though he won't play in the Gold Cup until the semifinals.

Coach Hugo Sanchez has gotten over a slow start in charge and now has "El Tri" playing some quality soccer, as evidenced by its 4-0 thrashing of Iran on Saturday. Sanchez must find a balance between the veteran attackers like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who is playing great soccer at the moment, and youngsters such as Nery Castillo and Andres Guardado, who could be the breakout stars of this tournament.

Mexico finds itself in a deceptively strong group, with Panama and Honduras far from being pushovers. That said, "El Tri" has too much talent not to win the group and should reach the Gold Cup final. Snapping its eight-match winless and goal-less streak against the U.S. national team on American soil is another story.

PANAMA




FIFA ranking -- 60

Gold Cup 2005 -- Lost to the USA in the final on penalty kicks.

Players to watch -- Blas Perez (Cucuta, Colombia), Jose Luis Garces (Belenenses, Portugal), Felipe Baloy (Monterrey, Mexico), Roberto Brown (Colorado Rapids).

Outlook -- The surprise team of the 2005 Gold Cup won't be surprising anyone this time around. With arguably a stronger squad than the one that reached the 2005 final, the Panamanians could make things difficult for Mexico.

With David Suazo out of the tournament it can be argued that Perez is the best striker in the Gold Cup. His Copa Libertadores exploits are well documented and he spearheads a Panama attack that is one of the best in CONCACAF. Brown has enjoyed a successful move to MLS and gives Perez a quality strike partner.

The Panamanians have the weapons to upset Mexico and hold off Honduras. This team's success will depend on how well their midfield holds up against the quality midfields of their fellow powers in Group C.

HONDURAS




FIFA ranking -- 55

Gold Cup 2005 -- Lost to the USA in the semifinals, 2-1

Players to watch -- Carlos Pavon (Real Espana), Julio Cesar Leon (Genoa), Amado Guevara (Motagua), Carlos Costly (GKS Beltasow).

Outlook -- Another team struck by an injury to a star player, Honduras' chances competing for the Gold Cup title suffered a major blow when Serie A star David Suazo suffered an injury, which ruled the region's best striker out of the tournament, while playing for Cagliari.

All is not lost for the "Catrachos" however, as several other attacking stars are on board to help Honduras in the tournament's toughest group. Carlos Pavon is still a dangerous striker and "Rambo" Leon is still one of the region's best midfielders. A wild card for Honduras is Amado Guevara, who played his way out of MLS recently.

As loaded as Mexico is, Honduras will be focusing on knocking off Panama for second place. Its tournament-opening match will set the tone for the group. Look for Honduras to reach the quarterfinals, be a second- or third-place team.

CUBA




FIFA ranking -- 71

Gold Cup 2005 -- Failed to advance past group stage

Players to watch -- Lestor More (Ciego De Avila).

Outlook -- The biggest story from Cuba's appearance in the 2005 Gold Cup was the defection of forward Maykel Galindo, who is now playing for Chivas USA. With few standouts and little chance of surviving a brutal group, the story for Cuba this time around will once again be whether any players seek asylum.

More is the most recognizable name on the roster, but he has done little since making a name for himself in the last World Cup qualifying cycle. It is tough to see the Cubans scoring a goal, let alone winning a game in this tough group.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.