The 12th edition of the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off this weekend (live, Sunday, 5 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer). After taking a look at Group A and B, we finish things off with the United States’ pool. Will the Americans make easy work of its opponents, or are we in for one or two surprises? Click through as FOX Soccer examines the players and teams to watch in Group C.
There aren't big expectations for a nation that stands 24 spots ahead of Tahiti on the FIFA world rankings and has only played international football for 18 years. Belize should just be happy to be here, no? Maybe, but if you look closer, the Jaguars can actually play a bit. At this year's Copa Centroamerica, Belize were the surprise of the tournament, finishing 4th to qualify for the Gold Cup. They lost games to fellow Gold Cup participants Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador, but all of those were close 1-0 defeats. The minnows also earned a goalless draw against Trinidad & Tobago this year. If Belize's defense can hold up against stronger opposition, who knows what could happen?
Key player to watch: Elroy Smith
Despite being the country's all-time leader in appearances (31), Smith is still an unknown-commodity in the international stage. Smith has been the mainstay of Belize's defense and the veteran presence needed to mount upsets. Smith has already proven it with his teammates earlier in 2013, when Belize achieved a shocking top four finish at the Copa Centroamerica.
Despite being widely recognized as the third great power in CONCACAF, sitting behind Mexico and the United States, Costa Rica has not yet managed to break their Gold Cup duck. Through ten appearances at the tournament, the team’s best effort came in 2002, where they finished runner-up to the United States. With a roster full of MLS stars, and a recent run of positive performances to put themselves in second place in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, this could be Costa Rica’s year.
Key player to watch: Alvaro Saborio
A prolific scorer for his club team, MLS-side Real Salt Lake, Álvaro Saborío has been a mainstay on the Costa Rican national team since the early 2000s. Despite his 72 appearances and 30 goals for the Costa Ricans, Saborío has struggled to make an impression during previous Gold Cups. In fact, during Costa Rica’s 2011 semifinal loss against Honduras, Saborío missed a penalty that would have put his team ahead in regular time, before missing another when the match went to penalty kicks. If the Ticos hope to have a successful performance, they’ll be relying on Saborío to lead the way.
Historically, Cuba has struggled to make their presence known during previous iterations of the Gold Cup. Despite this being the team’s seventh appearance at the tournament, they have only managed to advance past the group stage just once, in 2003, the same year Cuba celebrated its only victory at the competition. That said, the team is experiencing a recent resurgence. In 2012, Cuba won their first ever Caribbean Cup by taking down the region’s dominant team, Trinidad and Tobago. Similar success at the Gold Cup is a bit of a reach, but the tournament could do wonders for Cuba's overall development.
Key player to watch: Odelín Molina
At 38-years old, Cuban goalkeeper Odelín Molina should be in the twilight of his career, the period in which a player slows and begins to show signs of his age. Fortunately for Molina, the opposite seems true. With a string of clean sheets to lead Cuba to their first ever Caribbean Cup Championship, Molina comes into the Gold Cup in great form. And with 116 international appearances, Molina will need to provide the Cubans with leadership if they’re to have any hope of progressing beyond the group stage, not to mention with a great deal of saves.
Dream team? More like redeem team. Several former national team standouts who are getting a second chance to pitch themselves to Jurgen Klinsmann, most notably Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu, who haven’t featured for the U.S. in about a year. Of course, there are also those seeking their first senior national team cap, such as MLS’ current leading scorer, Jack McInerney. With a World Cup spot all but sealed up, Klinsmann is right to use this tournament as a “huge opportunity to see where a lot of the players are.” However, the U.S. team will also have revenge on their minds. Rivals Mexico have beaten them on home soil in the last two Gold Cup finals. To regain bragging rights, the U.S. must grasp the title again for the first time since 2007.
Key player: Landon Donovan, M, LA Galaxy
Sure, MLS leading scorer Jack McInerney is carrying a lot of hype into this tournament and much will be made of his chance to make a good first impression on Jurgen Klinsmann. But make no mistake, Landon Donovan is the story of this Gold Cup. How Donovan will gel with his teammates – and more importantly, with his coach – after returning from his sabbatical will be the key to both the U.S.’ chances at the Cup, as well as Donovan’s odds at making his fifth World Cup roster. The United States have been playing well without their talisman of late, and Donovan must prove they still need him around come 2014.