FOX Soccer Exclusive
United States must heed warning
It’s been six years since the U.S. men’s national team was last crowned champion of the region. Painfully, arch-rival Mexico won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in both 2009 and 2011, comprehensively dismantling the Americans in the final both times. The chance to make amends, to re-assert the dominance of all of North and Central America and the Caribbean the USA relinquished after winning the 2007 edition, now presents itself anew.
And it begins on Tuesday in Portland, where the Americans kick off their Gold Cup campaign against Belize (Live, FOX Soccer, 10.30pm ET). That game will be followed by further group stage dates with Cuba in Salt Lake City on July 13 and Costa Rica in Hartford on July 16, as the USA’s opponents gradually grow stronger.
But if Belize is a soccer minnow in every sense of the word – it has never qualified for the World Cup and this is its first Gold Cup appearance, secured with its fourth-place finish at the 2013 Copa Centroamericana – that didn’t stop its soccer federation’s president from throwing down the gauntlet with astonishing ferocity and temerity.
"I call on our national team to not only beat the United States but to humiliate the United States," Football Federation of Belize president Ruperto Vicente told a local paper. "It is your responsibility. It is your task."
And what a tall task it is. The USA, like Mexico, may have selected a glorified B-team of senior fringe players and those of Major League Soccer showing promise, but their ranks are worthy. Such American soccer household names as Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Stuart Holden, who have slipped down the depth chart for various reasons, are all in the squad in hopes of building their respective cases for inclusion at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The likes of Clarence Goodson and Herculez Gomez contribute uncommon ability for a supposed band of second-stringers.
Belize, meanwhile, features less than a handful of full professionals active outside of its domestic Premier Football League. But none of that stopped Vicente from going further. "We will not only participate," he said, improbably. “That was in the past. We will not invest and this nation will not invest its money in young people who will only go to a tournament to participate. We are now entering tournaments to win."
That investment does indeed come from the entirety of Central America’s smallest nation – population: 312,000. The estimated $150,000 it will cost Belize to participate in this Gold Cup was not at hand when it qualified. So a telethon was staged which raised some $60,000. Barbeques were pulled together. But at the time of writing, the 'Belize Jaguars' were still some $25,000 short. They are taking donations on their federation’s website.
The Americans are meticulously prepared. Those squad members whose overseas club seasons ended back in May practiced with the A-team throughout its May-June run of friendlies and World Cup qualifiers. The rest joined a week ago the better to prepare.
A tune-up game against Guatemala on Friday was convincingly won 6-0 once the Americans found their rhythm in the second half. Donovan made his first USA appearance since August and scored two goals, his record 50th and 51st for the program. The Guatemalans dug in and tried to slow the game, which is exactly why they’d been selected as opponents.
"In CONCACAF, a lot of teams like to bunker in and play defensively," said veteran DaMarcus Beasley, who will act as captain for the tournament, following the game. "We have to find ways to break them down. This was a good test."
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann put the lopsided win in perspective. "It was a friendly game against a team in their offseason," he said. So he’d quite like to see some growth on the field.
"We need to improve a lot of things," Klinsmann said. "We need to build chemistry. It’s a different group than in the World Cup qualifiers, even if some came over from that group. And that takes time. It’s not so fluid right away. It’s a lot of work and the guys know that. We want to peak towards the end of the tournament."
In the interim, the Americans would be best served not to take opponents lightly, however tempting it might be. Canada learned as much in the tournament opener on Sunday, when it was upset 1-0 and outplayed by tiny Martinique. Co-favorites Mexico learned the same lesson on the Rose Bowl turf in Pasadena just a few hours later. Panama, a hurdle a team of Mexico’s stature ought to clear easily, was so well organized that its 2-1 win was well deserved.
The odds are slim that the USA will, in fact be humiliated, as Vicente demands. But then they were just as slim that their neighbors to the north and south would, too.
Kyle McCarthy contributed to this report.
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