Two years ago, the Gold Cup was rife with intrigue. It was the first time U.S. coach Bob Bradley had managed the team in a tournament setting. Ditto for Mexico manager Hugo Sanchez, who was fired less than a year later. There were plenty of compelling matches along the way, with Guadeloupe stunning all and sundry with its run to the semifinals. And the U.S. came from behind to beat Mexico 2-1 in what was a captivating final.
This time around, the subplots are tougher to find. The U.S. is sending a "B" team to this year's edition, while teams such as Mexico, Honduras and Canada are all missing some or most of their top players.
Yet the performers on show all will have something to prove. For those World Cup aspirants, the Gold Cup amounts to a Last Chance Saloon of sorts. Players will be eager to wedge their way into the consciousness of their manager in the hope that a trip to South Africa is in their future. It also will be an opportunity for a coach such as Mexico's Javier Aguirre to answer some pressing questions about the makeup of his team, especially with World Cup qualifying set to resume in August.
The lesser lights will be keen to prove that they deserve to be included among the region's elite teams, even as the likes of the U.S., Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica continue to put their stamp on CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football).
Here are the protagonists to watch as Gold Cup play unfolds Friday:
Costa Rica is the clear front-runner, but a wide open battle will ensue to see who joins the Ticos, with Canada and Jamaica the favorites.
Coach Rodrigo Kenton has the Ticos flying high at the moment, as they lead the final round of World Cup qualifying at the halfway point. But they'll enter the Gold Cup minus a few of their attacking weapons. Bryan Ruiz is with Belgian side Gent for the preseason, while Cristian Bolanos is opting to remain with Norwegian side IK Start. Andy Furtado has been ruled out by a failed drug test, leaving the Ticos with Alvaro Saborio, Andy Herron and Froylan Ledezma as the only true forwards on the roster. Defender Michael Umana also has been ruled out with a knee injury.
Still, Costa Rica will have available a sizable chunk of the squad that took apart the U.S. 3-1 just four weeks ago. Rising star Celso Borges, who scored in the aforementioned match, will be on hand and pull the strings in midfield along with the ageless Walter Centeno.
That said, Kenton has been quoted in the Costa Rican press as saying that because the Gold Cup doesn't qualify his side for Copa America, the World Cup or the Confederations Cup, he will be intent on using his entire roster. For that reason, expect plenty of experimentation on the part of the Ticos.
The Maple Leafs are probably still fuming over their 2007 semifinal loss to the U.S., a match that saw a late equalizer from Atiba Hutchinson waved off by a phantom offside call. Two years on, Canada is a team in transition. Its failed World Cup qualifying bid has led Dwayne De Rosario and Adrian Serioux to remain with MLS club side Toronto FC, and the sense is that it's time to revamp the squad.
Yet some other quality players are back for another go, including Hutchinson and Deportivo La Coruna midfielder Julian de Guzman, and the duo should form the core of what is a potent midfield. Throw in veterans Paul Stalteri and Kevin McKenna on defense, and the Maple Leafs could make another deep tournament run.
Jamaica is now on its fourth coach in the past two years, yet after being named interim manager for the third time, Theodore Whitmore is poised to lead the Reggae Boyz in their Gold Cup return.
The reigning Caribbean champions have several names on their roster that are familiar to MLS fans, with L.A. goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, Seattle defender Tyrone Marshall and Colorado forward Omar Cummings all set to take part. Yet it is two English Premier League veterans, Stoke City forward Ricardo Fuller and Bolton defender Ricardo Gardner, who will be expected to lead the Reggae Boyz into the knockout stages. A third, Wigan forward Marlon King, is out because of injury.
El Salvador has been the surprise package so far in World Cup qualifying, having tied the U.S. and beating Mexico. But both of those games were played in San Salvador, and Los Cuscatlecos haven't fared as well on the road.
The Salvadorans have adopted a disciplined, counterattacking style under head coach Carlos de los Cobos, with attackers Eliseo Quintanilla, Cristian Castillo and Osael Romero all capable of delivering the unexpected. Romero's free kicks in particular will make conceding set pieces a risky venture.
The U.S. and Honduras seem certain to progress, despite the makeshift nature of their rosters. Haiti could snag a spot as one of the two third-place teams.
With the Confederations Cup just completed, U.S. head coach Bob Bradley is basically holding auditions to fill out the last few spots on his World Cup roster. The team does have World Cup veterans Steve Cherundolo, Jimmy Conrad and Brian Ching in the fold, but the rest of squad is composed of less experienced players looking to get on Bradley's radar.
Three players to look for in particular are midfielders Freddy Adu and Stuart Holden as well as forward Charlie Davies. After failing to play any time at the Confederations Cup, Adu will be looking to prove that his creativity demands a spot in the lineup when the full team reconvenes in August. Holden is the kind of two-way possession midfielder whom the full team needs, and his performances here should give a strong indication of his progress. Davies impressed at the Confederation Cup, scoring a goal against Egypt while generally causing problems with his searing pace. This tournament is a chance to solidify his spot.
Los Catrachos are still very much in the World Cup qualifying hunt, and with a crunch match at home against Costa Rica coming in August, manager Reinaldo Rueda is intent on not risking his more important players. Performers such as captain Amado Guevara, Wilson Palacios and Ramon Nunez all have been left off the Gold Cup roster. That leaves veterans such as forward Carlos Costly and defender Osman Chavez to pick up the slack for what is very much a Honduras "B" team.
That said, Honduras will be keen to win the group and thus avoid a likely quarterfinal date with Costa Rica.
Les Grenadiers are the ultimate party crashers, having "qualified" for the Gold Cup only after Cuba withdrew, then winning a coin flip with Trinidad & Tobago. Coach Jairo Rios will try to make the most of his team's second chance, although he'll need some otherworldly performances from strikers Fabrice Noel and Leonel Saint-Preux as well as midfielder Alexandre Boucicaut.
With a population of only 90,000, just qualifying for the Gold Cup is an impressive achievement for the island nation. Alas, its long odds of reaching the quarterfinals just got longer, with the news that midfield linchpin Shalrie Joseph could be unavailable thanks to a right knee sprain.
That will leave Blackburn Rovers striker Jason Roberts to lead the way for the Spice Boyz, although he's bound to get some help from English league veteran Delroy Facey, who is in line to make his international debut in this tournament.
Mexico should have enough firepower to prevail, while Panama has sufficient quality to nab second spot.
This group looks like a walk in the park for Mexico, but given the way El Tri have made hard work of just about every tournament they've entered in the past two years, they're bound to encounter a self-inflicted stumble or two.
Like the tournament's other heavyweights, Mexico's roster is shorn of some of its bigger names, with Rafa Marquez, Pavel Pardo and Andres Guardado among the more notable absentees. Manager Javier Aguirre will be able to lean on the veteran leadership of Gerardo Torrado and Jonny Magallon, but this tournament is all about getting young attackers Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Vela the kind of international experience that will help pull Mexico out of its World Cup qualifying funk, one that currently sees the team lying in fourth place in the final-round hexagonal.
Two years ago, Panama was thought to be a team on the rise, given how it pushed the U.S. to the limit in a 2-1 quarterfinal loss. A shocking defeat to El Salvador in World Cup qualifying knocked the team back a peg, but a recent triumph in the Central American championships, in which it beat Costa Rica on penalties, now has the Red Tide believing again.
Certainly, a strike force of Pachuca forward Blas Perez and Millonarios' Luis Tejada would give any team pause. And Jaime Penedo is the kind of keeper who can win games by himself. Add in the midfield exploits of Ricardo Phillips, and another trip to the quarterfinals is well within reach.
The Gwada Boys' stunning run to the semifinals made them the darlings of 2007 Gold Cup. But duplicating that feat could prove too difficult a task in 2009. A change in eligibility rules means that 2007 heroes such as former French international Jocelyn Angloma are no longer eligible for Guadeloupe, although goalkeeper Franck Grandel and midfielders Loic Loval and Aurelien Capoue return. (Since Guadeloupe is an overseas department of France, it is considered only an associate member of CONCACAF and cannot participate in FIFA championships. Although Guadeloupians carry French passports, tighter restrictions mean that French players are not eligbile for Guadeloupe.)
Still, Guadeloupe remains a force, and it finished third at December's Caribbean championships.
The Albiazules are making their first appearance in the Gold Cup, courtesy of their 2-0 win over Guatemala in January's Central American championships. The win earned them fifth place and was their first victory in 16 matches.
That would seem to indicate that their chances of advancing are nonexistent, but manager Otoniel Olivas has fashioned a hardworking side that did manage a tie against El Salvador. If Nicaragua is to progress, it will have to rely heavily on the goal-scoring exploits of Samuel Wilson.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.
|U.S. men's schedule
|U.S. vs. Grenada
Qwest Field; Seattle, Wash.
9 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Honduras
RFK Stadium; Washington, D.C.
9 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Haiti
Gillette Stadium; Foxborough, Mass.
7 p.m. ET