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Jul 13, 2009

Honduras and Canada looking like dark horses

A Gold Cup cheat sheet for catching up ahead of this weekend's quarterfinals: High jinks for El Tri: This ridiculous business with Mexico coach Javier Aguirre -- if you haven't seen the video that shows him kicking a Panamanian player last week, it's a real hoot -- underscores a problem that I believe has long dogged El Tri's efforts. I was in Montpellier at France '98 when a good Mexico side had Germany on the ropes in a second-round contest. With a lead going into the 75th minute, Mexico was on the verge of a quarterfinal date with Croatia, and perhaps en route to something special. But instead of pouring every little ounce of energy into achieving the result, needless stabs at gamesmanship crept into and poisoned the Mexican effort. So, trying to gain a few additional yards on a free kick and seeking to get the cheap yellow card called on German players seemed tantamount to the greater aim. What does any of that have to do with Aguirre? Mexico, showing increasing signs of slippage over the last few years, will never find its way out of the woods until leaders emerge who can keep everyone's eyes on the prize. They simply must eliminate the silliness and high jinks and get on with business. A coach who kicks opponents on the sideline is hardly a tribute to the professionalism and single-minded, result-driven approach Mexico desperately needs. Mexico must win: On the other hand, Aguirre's stunt and subsequent three-match ban has created an interesting situation. Mexico must win its Gold Cup quarterfinal test with Haiti in order for Aguirre to serve the entirety of his suspension during this tournament. If his side loses in suburban Dallas this weekend, he'll have to complete the ban in Mexico's next scheduled match. And there's the rub. That next match is the Aug. 12 biggie at Estadio Azteca against bitter rival United States. Aguirre has apologized for kicking Panamanian player Ricardo Phillips, who was dribbling the ball and attempting to remain inbounds near the Mexican bench. He has accepted his ban and called the degree of punishment fair. Pondering the U.S. player pool: Have any of the American Gold Cuppers done enough to move up in the player pool muddle? Stuart Holden certainly has turned a shiny light on himself. He's got all the ingredients to be a valuable international contributor, and his versatility is sure to be an asset as coach Bob Bradley ponders his choices next year -- assuming the side qualifies.

Gold Cup quarterfinals
Saturday
Canada vs. Honduras
Lincoln Financial Field; Philadelphia
5 p.m. ET

U.S. vs. Panama
Lincoln Financial Field; Philadelphia
8 p.m. ET

Sunday
Guadeloupe vs. Costa Rica
Dallas Cowboys Stadium; Arlington, Texas
3 p.m. ET

Mexico vs. Haiti
Dallas Cowboys Stadium; Arlington, Texas
6 p.m. ET

Holden has played all four spots in the Houston Dynamo's diamond-shaped midfield over the last two years, in addition to lining up occasionally in 2008 at striker. Plus, Holden has even more going for him. First, his fitness can't be questioned, as he always manages to chase, harass and pressure while still saving plenty of gas for the attack. And since he plays with the Dynamo for Dominic Kinnear, a coach who keeps his charges on a tight tether, Holden can be counted on to maintain tactical discipline in pressure situations. Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake has been strong, but he's in a tough spot, stuck behind Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber in the pecking order of holding midfielders. Plus, Jermaine Jones could slip into the mix. Injuries do happen, but it doesn't look good for Beckerman. Chad Marshall has also elevated his stock and may be firmly situated as the fourth-choice center back. The rest? They'll have to do more -- but in most cases, their chances likely have run out. Honduras rising: Honduras has roughly the population of Virginia. Its politics are a mess at the moment. Half the country still lives in poverty. Against all that, the little Latin American nation has something going right now on with its futbol. Halfway through World Cup qualifying, good players such as Amado Guevara, David Suazo, Carlos Pavon, Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa have the country sitting in third place in the Gold Cup, ahead of Mexico, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. Getting to a World Cup would be epochal stuff for Honduras, which last qualified in 1982. In a Gold Cup tournament replete with "B teams," the Catrachos' second-choice selections are holding their own, too. They made things tough on the United States last week, and a commanding 4-0 weekend win over Grenada secured second place in the group for coach Reinaldo Rueda's side. Honduran federation general secretary Alfredo Hawit has promised that his team isn't just here to ramp up the level of experience for youngsters. He says they badly want the trophy -- and it's easy to believe him based on the Catrachos' level of commitment. Grass vs. turf: The Dallas Cowboys' new behemoth of a stadium, with a price tag of $1 billion and the ability to sardine in 100,000 spectators for special events, will generally be home to American football. But the first event in the perspiring arts will be a soccer game, as two quarterfinals play out Sunday. But here's the funny thing: The Gold Cup apparently doesn't rate highly enough to deserve a grass field. Stadium officials spent a few days last week installing the artificial turf soccer field for Sunday's pair of matches. A week later, however, they'll layer in a temporary grass field for the venue's second night of athletic competition: Chelsea's friendly against Mexico's Club America. Under contract, that one must be on natural grass. Oh, Canada: Yes, it's the Gold Cup, so evaluations always need to be seen through that prism. The big boys haven't brought their best squads to Copa de Oro, although Costa Rica's Ticos have a fairly representative bunch. Still, Canada's effort has been impressive. A talented trio in midfield -- Atiba Hutchinson, Patrice Bernier and Julian de Guzman -- have engineered the effort. De Guzman, acting as a deep-lying playmaker, always appears in control. In Dejan Jakovic, the Canadians have a good, young defender. And in fellows like Andrew Hainault, they have promising prospects in the defensive reserve. Jakovic, now with D.C. United, has been quite impressive, calmly guiding and distributing from the back. Beyond the quality of individuals, interim coach Stephen Hart has the team playing a possession style, as opposed to the old school-type British attachment that Canadian soccer hasn't been able to shake. At the very least, Hart is making a good case for staying on. He certainly can't do much worse than Canada's shocking and disastrous early conclusion to South Africa 2010 qualification efforts. On the other hand: Canada can't come up with something better than Greg Sutton in goal? Paging Pat Onstad. Or, paging ... well ... somebody. Sutton is the team's weak link. That shouldn't be a big surprise considering that he was beaten out at Toronto FC by a rookie. Take nothing away from Stefan Frei, who has been solid this year for Toronto. Still, few rookies get to start in goal in MLS, so that says a lot about Sutton's abilities. More on de Guzman: Canadian fans may be seeing more in the months ahead of the talented de Guzman. He was named Gold Cup MVP in 2007, and several sources say Toronto FC has put a lavish offer on the table now that de Guzman is out of contract with La Liga side Deportivo de La Coruna. Anybody who has watched him during the Gold Cup knows why Toronto fans are so excited -- although the better he looks in this tournament, it may be less likely that he plays in MLS. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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