If the national teams of Mexico and Canada were watching the United States play on Thursday night, and you know they were, both squads had to come away feeling even more confident that they have as good a chance as the Americans do of adding a Gold Cup trophy to the mantle.
The Americans and Mexicans were the easy favorites heading into the tournament, but after the U.S. team's tougher-than-expected 1-0 victory over feisty Guatemala and Canada's impressive performance in defeating Costa Rica, the race for the 2007 Gold Cup is at the very least a three-horse race.
Before too much is made of the U.S. team's struggles to put away a Guatemalan squad that didn't exactly play with tons of ambition or attacking intelligence, it should be noted that coach Bob Bradley's team is still getting accustomed to playing together and did manage to control the game despite playing a man down for the final 17 minutes after Oguchi Onyewu was sent off.
Mexico still hasn't taken the field in the tournament but must be optimistic after seeing an American squad that is beatable.
How confident should Mexico and coach Hugo Sanchez be heading into their Gold Cup opener? The last-minute 1-0 loss to Paraguay in a friendly on Wednesday night, which came after Mexico squandered countless scoring chances, has surely left a sour taste. The perfect remedy could be coming in the form of Cuba, which plays the role of glorified away team when it takes the field in front of a pro-Mexico crowd at Giants Stadium on Friday night.
If the U.S. team's struggles with Guatemala will do anything for Mexico, it will give Sanchez an example to show his team that no opponent should be taken lightly in this tournament, even a starless but defensively tough Cuban squad. A good start in Friday night's match is vital, not only for the team's morale, which may be shaken a bit after losing at Estadio Azteca on Wednesday, but also because tough opponents await in Mexico's next two matches (Panama and Honduras).
A slipup against the Cubans and suddenly Mexico will be feeling pressure to beat two good opponents without its best player, Rafael Marquez, who isn't expected to play in the Gold Cup until the semifinal round as he finishes out the La Liga season with Barcelona.
The smart money is still on Mexico coming out and putting on a show. The attack is at full strength, with the likes of Andres Guardado, Pavel Pardo and Jared Borgetti, as well as the temperamental but in-form Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The Mexicans still have the weapons to overwhelm every team in their group -- and in the tournament, for that matter.
The same wouldn't have been said about Canada before the tournament, but after seeing its attacking stars play such a fluid and intelligent and skillful game against a good Costa Rica team, the Maple Leafs suddenly warrant consideration as title contenders.
The midfield quartet of Julian De Guzman, Atiba Hutchinson, Dwayne De Rosario and Paul Stalteri could be the best in the tournament, and their combination of attacking flair and defensive bite as a unit help Canada's shortcomings on defense. De Guzman's star performance against Costa Rica was particularly inspired, and he looks poised to terrorize defenses at every opportunity.
Unlike Mexico, Canada's toughest group game has already been won, leaving two attack-minded but inferior opponents to conquer in Haiti and Guadeloupe. Before the tournament, Haiti would have been considered a worthy challenger to Canada and Costa Rica for a top-two spot in Group A, but its uninspired performance against Guadeloupe in a 1-1 tie on Wednesday left the impression that the Haitians aren't nearly as good as their results in the past six months would have suggested.
If Canada can keep its momentum and not get caught up in overlooking two beatable opponents, it could be looking at a winnable quarterfinal against a team like Guatemala or El Salvador, followed by an enticing semifinal meeting against the United States.
MLS Game Previews
It is a light schedule in MLS this weekend, with just four games before Thursday's ESPN match between FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. The absence of several star players due to the Gold Cup has taken some of the shine off of these matchups, but there is one match that doesn't have that problem.
The Red Bulls and D.C. United meet for the first time since last year's hard-fought playoff series won by D.C. Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena takes a far different team to RFK Stadium than the last time around, while D.C. is only recently getting over an early-season funk that led to a winless April.
As if the rivalry wasn't enough, this match also features the league's hottest player not playing in the Gold Cup. Juan Pablo Angel has been carrying the Red Bulls' attack and will cause problems for a D.C. United defense that only recently straightened itself out.
What can we expect from the first week of Gold Cup absences? You can expect some new stars to emerge, some ugly matches and yet another week without a Real Salt Lake win.
Chivas USA at Chicago Fire
The Fire finally broke their losing skid last week and now return home hoping to defeat some familiar faces. Former Chicago stars Ante Razov and Jesse Marsch enjoyed a stint with the U.S. national team last week and should ride the momentum of that experience. Razov and speedy Maykel Galindo will offer a much tougher test for the suspect Fire defense than Columbus did. Chivas USA wins on the road as Chicago will struggle, especially if Chris Rolfe misses another match due to injury: Chivas USA 2, Fire 0.
Los Angeles Galaxy at FC Dallas
The Hoops continue to struggle with consistency, but they face a Galaxy team missing Landon Donovan as well as starters Kevin Harmes and Ante Jazic. Where will the offense come from for Los Angeles? Your guess is as good as coach Frank Yallop's. FC Dallas should have little trouble controlling possession and keeping constant pressure on the Galaxy's shorthanded defense. Barring a star performance from goalkeeper Joe Cannon, this one could get ugly: FC Dallas 2, Galaxy 0.
New York Red Bulls at D.C. United
Confidence is high in Red Bulls camp after Wednesday's comeback victory in Toronto. Juan Pablo Angel's goals helped overshadow a flat first-half performance. They can't afford another slow start against a D.C. United team that is starting to hit its stride. The forward tandem of Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno will take full advantage of the Red Bulls' shorthanded defense and do just enough to offset the continued masterful play of Angel: D.C. United 2, Red Bulls 1.
Houston Dynamo at Columbus Crew
Someone forgot to tell Houston that the absence of Dwayne De Rosario and Brian Ching would stifle its offense. A 2-1 victory over Colorado on Thursday shows that the Dynamo aren't about to wilt while their stars are away. The Crew, on the other hand, are showing few signs of life. Aside from Guillermo Barros Schelotto's wasted flashes of brilliance, Columbus' offense has been stagnant and isn't likely to catch fire against Houston's stingy defense. The defending champs move a step closer to .500, and the Crew fall even further into the East basement: Dynamo 2, Crew 0.
Thursday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)
FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake
That zero in the Real Salt Lake win column is starting to weigh heavily on a franchise that was looking for a spark when it hired Jason Kreis as head coach. Yes, RSL has tied four of six matches under Kreis, but that just won't cut it, and we are still waiting to see what reinforcements the team will add. FC Dallas escaped Salt Lake City with a gift of a tie in the season opener but will come away with a victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium this time around: FC Dallas, 1, Real Salt Lake 0.
Last week: 2-4-2
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.