Leading up to the opening kick on July 7, FOXSoccer.com previews each of the three groups in this year's Gold Cup tournament. We take a peek at Group B, which pits heated Central American rivals Honduras and El Salvador together and also features a little Caribbean spice, courtesy of Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago.
Key player to watch: Mechack Jerome
Jerome is in his first season with Sporting Kansas City after making a name for himself in the USL the past few years. At the MLS heavyweights, Jerome has one assist in ten appearances (eight starts) to his credit this season. A member of Haiti’s national team since he was just 18, Jerome will probably have his name called more than he wants to. Haiti’s defense will be pretty busy, and it’ll be up to Jerome to clean up the back.
Initially who you would consider the underdog of Group B, Haiti actually impressed in recent outings, shocking Italy with a 2-2 draw in Rio de Janeiro, and narrowly losing to Spain 2-1 just days earlier in what both opponents figured was just an easy tune-up match for the Confederations Cup. Those results should infuse plenty of confidence in Haiti, who lost all four of their previous games of 2013, and against much weaker opposition. The roster is full of mystery men – save for a handful of Ligue 1, Ligue 2 and MLS players – but then again so are many of the Gold Cup rosters.
Key player to watch: Kenwyne Jones
Kenwyne Jones, by all accounts, is one of the best players in this entire tournament, let alone on the Trinidad & Tobago side. There aren’t many other Premier League regulars in this tournament – in fact, he’s probably the only one, seeing as Mexico's Javier Hernandez and USA's Clint Dempsey will both miss the Gold Cup. Jones has scored a respectable 13 goals in three seasons at Stoke and will likely be the focal point to T&T’s game plan throughout the tournament. If the "Soca Warriors" are going to make a run, it’ll be up to Jones.
Trinidad & Tobago
Trinidad & Tobago are, to put it kindly, limping into the Gold Cup. Dating back to T&T’s Caribbean Cup Final loss to Cuba, the "Soca Warriors" have been winless – and held scoreless – in their past five games, including June shutouts at the hands of mighty Romania and Estonia. In the World Cup qualifying cycle, Trinidad & Tobago didn’t fare much better; their exit after the 2nd round of qualifying was the country’s earliest elimination since the 1994 World Cup cycle. Still, underestimate them at your own peril. The Soca Warriors do boast several established players – Stoke City’s Kenwyne Jones, Middlesbrough’s Justin Hoyte, and Philadelphia’s Keon Daniel come to mind – and have experience shocking the world before, such as sensationally stealing a point from Sweden in the 2006 World Cup.
Key player to watch: Rodolfo Zelaya
Zelaya’s name should ring a bell for Gold Cup viewers. Zelaya scored four goals in the 2011 Gold Cup – second only to Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez – He was also named "Man of the Match" for El Salvador’s group games against Cuba and Panama that year. At the club level, Zelaya has a Salvadoran championship to his credit, scoring 17 goals in 25 games to lead Alianza to the 2011 title. The past two seasons he was loaned out to Russian club Alania Vladikavkaz, with whom he will start in the Russian Premier League next season.
El Salvador, unlike their rivals to the North, did not make the final CONCACAF World Cup qualifying stage, bowing out in the 3rd qualifying round, and haven’t made a World Cup since 1982. However, El Salvador is quickly a team on the rise in CONCACAF. El Salvador's Under-23 team knocked the United States out of the Olympics qualifying tournament last March, and participated in this year's Under-20 World Cup in Turkey. As such, keep an eye out on several young talents who’ll get a chance to shine at the Gold Cup and who could further elevate this country’s rising game.
Key player to watch: Andy Najar
With Roger Espinoza out of the mix, all eyes turn to 20-year-old Andy Najar. The 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year with DC United secured a full transfer to Belgian champions Anderlecht in 2013, where he is keen to prove his talent – and his $3m price tag— in the Champions League shall Anderlecht qualify once more. Small, wily and quick, the winger once snubbed the chance to play for the United States national team, opting instead to play for Honduras. In 2012, Najar was part of Honduras’ Olympics squad, making him the first player ever from DC United’s youth system to play in the Olympics. Watch out for this great talent to make some noise in this year’s Gold Cup.
After a long World Cup layoff ended in 2010, Honduras have quickly become one of the elite teams in CONCACAF the last few years and would be considered a dark horse contender for this year’s Gold Cup, if only they had invited their best player – Wigan’s freshly-minted FA Cup winner Roger Espinoza – along for the ride. Espinoza was not included in the squad (likely per Wigan’s orders), significantly lowering the team’s profile. But that might not be a bad thing. Honduras have shown they can compete with the CONCACAF goliaths, taking four points from its first two matches in the Hexagonal against the United States and Mexico. Flying under the radar might make them that much more dangerous.