Thursday, June 2, 2011

2011 Gold Cup Preview

By Kevin Beane

Nearly a year has passed since the World Cup has passed, which is usually the beginning and the end of United States interest in soccer.

But international soccer thrums on every year, and the pinnacle of international soccer, besides the World Cup, is each continent's championship.

The most famous and respected of these continental championships is naturally Europe's, with the Euro Championship being broadcast on ESPN. These tournaments might even occasionally have America sleepily open one eye halfway before closing it again until the World Cup.

That's a pity, because right under our noses every two years is the CONCACAF (read: North American, plus Guyana and Suriname) championship, the Gold Cup. If the United States cannot gain much traction on the world soccer stage, they can, and have (four times) been crowned champion of the continent, no mean feat when Mexico is involved.

Unfortunately, after the U.S. and Mexico, the talent and quality of North American soccer drops considerably. Only one CONCACAF nation besides the U.S. and Mexico has ever gotten out of the group stage in the World Cup (Costa Rica, in 1990).

In the CONCACAF hierarchy, where the U.S. and Mexico are far, far out in front of their peers, Costa Rica was reliably the third-best team in the region for a long time. But that has changed in the last couple of years, with Costa Rica passing the torch to Honduras, both in World Cup qualifying and in the Central American Championships.

Beyond these four nations, several others (Jamaica, Trinidad, Canada, Panama) make occasional forays into competitiveness. But it's still the Mexicans' and the Americans' show, and probably will be for quite some time.

Mexico is the defending champion, having shellacked the Yanks 5-0 in the 2009 Final. It should be noted, however, that the U.S. played that tournament with a young, experimental squad. The last time the U.S. placed their best roster in the tournament, in 2007, the beat Mexico in the final in dramatic fashion.

This year, with a slot in the 2014 Confederations Cup on the line (a tournament which pits all the continental champions against each other as an appetizer to the World Cup), the U.S. team is again bringing their best and brightest onto the pitch.

Let's look at each of the groups. Play begins Sunday.

GROUP A (Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Cuba)

Mexico should not have a particularly hard time getting through this group, but it's still probably the most difficult group of the three groups. Costa Rica will be eager to put their disappointments of the last two years behind them, and El Salvador can be scrappy: they made it to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in the last iteration for the first time since 1998, and beat Mexico along the way.

Cuba will be the group's pushover, and if prior tournaments Cuba has participated in on U.S. soil are any indication, defections from the squad from players seeking political asylum is a very real possibility.

GROUP B (Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Grenada)

Ay Caramba! This group is brutal. The only squad with a good shot at getting a point off of Honduras is Jamaica. Jamaica made it to the 1998 World Cup, but has sunk like a stone since then, failing to make it to the final round of World Cup qualifiers in 2006 and 2010. Rock Bottom came in 2007, when they didn't even advance to the Gold Cup after being upset at home by ... St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

They have sloooowly made their way back to respectability since then, however, and recent results are encouraging.

Guatemala has not kept up with its neighbors and at this point can only be considered better than Nicaragua and Belize in Central America. They do have a pretty good rivalry with Honduras, so maybe they can make some hay from that.

Grenada. Let's see (consults Wikipedia) ... this is their second Gold Cup, having qualified in 2009 too. There, they were smashed in all three group games by an aggregate score of 10-0. They do have a better FIFA World Ranking than Guatemala, so perhaps winning that game should be their goal.

GROUP C (United States, Canada, Panama, Guadeloupe)

Although Group A probably had the best top three teams, Group C is stronger from top to bottom. The U.S. should advance to the knockout stages, but Canada, who won the Gold Cup in 2000, is very eager to be taken seriously.

There is also bad blood between the American and Canadian teams; in the semifinals of the 2007 Gold Cup, the U.S. was clinging to a 2-1 lead, down a man, when Canada scored an equalizer that was very incorrectly waved off for offsides; had it counted, a 30-minute overtime would have been played, with the U.S. still down a man and all the momentum with Canada.

I maintain, however, that the disallowed goal was moot due to another officiating error: the goal happened very, very late in injury time, and the officials gave far more injury time than they should have permitted, given the relatively clean, injury-free flow to the second half and that several substitutes came on at the same time. At any rate, this will be Canada's first opportunity to avenge that loss.

Panama has never qualified for a World Cup, but usually makes it to the final qualification group. Additionally, they are the last North American team besides the U.S. and Mexico to make it to the Gold Cup final, losing in a shootout to the U.S. in 2005.

Guadeloupe is an interesting case. They are not eligible for the World Cup because they are fully a "state" of France, just as much as Hawaii is to the U.S. But they are allowed to participate in the Gold Cup for some reason and usually do well, having advanced to the knockout stages in each of the last two Gold Cups, including a semifinal appearance in 2007.

It doesn't speak well of the caliber of CONCACAF when a remote province of France is pretty much on par with anyone below the U.S. and Mexico. I think they make it out of the group stage this year, too.

Predictions

Quarterfinalists

Mexico
Costa Rica
El Salvador
Honduras
Jamaica
USA
Guadaloupe
Panama

Semifinalists

Mexico
USA
Honduras
Guadeloupe

Finals

USA over Mexico. It's their turn.

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