Faulty perceptions somehow still exist about the strength of CONCACAF. They linger even though Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup last year. They persist even though Mexico and the United States reach the knockout stage frequently and trouble the top teams in the world on a consistent basis. They survive year-after-year through flimsy justification and willful ignorance of the peculiarities of playing in this confederation.
The difficulty of meandering through this confederation is not lost on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players, though. They enter this CONCACAF Gold Cup on home soil as favorites after claiming this trophy two years ago and marching through an occasionally difficult transition period during the past year. They grasp the weight of the expectations placed upon their shoulders and understand the increasingly onerous demands of the journey ahead of them.
Article continues below ...
"Our goal is to win this competition and qualify for the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017," Klinsmann said in the buildup to the victory over Guatemala on Friday. "That’s the simple message to all of the players."
If only the road through this 12-team tournament would prove as straightforward. Mexico and the U.S. enter the tournament as the projected finalists if everything tracks as expected, but there are several other teams — including Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama — capable of making deep runs. Other sides can pose problems on the day in a tournament where the compressed schedule and the rigorous travel inevitably create uncertainty from game to game.
The complicated route for the Americans starts in Group A. There is no easing into the tournament with Honduras as the first opponent on Tuesday (live, 9:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go) in Frisco, Texas. Haiti presents an unpredictable challenge in the second game on Friday (live, 8:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go). The final group stage game is a rematch of the 2013 final against Panama in Kansas City, Kan. on July 13 (live, 9:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go).
If the Americans want to win the group, then they must embrace the predicament quickly. They boast the depth and the talent to navigate through these assignments, but there is no margin for error given the opposition at hand in those first three matches.
"It seems like one of the harder groups we’ve had in the past couple of years in this tournament," U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "The focus is going to have to be right there from the start. We’ll just be watching video and making sure we’re prepared as much as possible. We have to go out there and keep improving as the tournament goes on. I think that’ll be a goal of ours: to be peaking by end."
It is a shared objective for the chief adversary, too. Mexico enters this tournament with a point to prove after a disappointing and somewhat controversial run at the Copa América with a second team. El Tri boss Miguel Herrera is under significant pressure to deliver the title and force a playoff for that Confederations Cup berth, even with Javier Hernández (fractured clavicle) and Héctor Moreno (foot) sidelined. The onus now falls on Giovani dos Santos, Oribe Peralta and Carlos Vela to prop up a vulnerable defense going through a change from a back three to a back four.
Other contenders pose a threat as well. Costa Rica retains most of the players from that magical World Cup run, but the Ticos lost coach Jorge Luis Pinto and his considerable tactical acumen to Honduras after returning from Brazil. Pinto is saddled with a weaker lot to implement his organized defensive principles this time around, particularly after industrious midfielder Roger Espinoza declined an invitation to play in the group stage. Panama trusts experienced campaigners like Blas Perez and Luis Tejeda to mount another lengthy foray through this tournament.
Every team — even the sides likely to exit when the tournament winnows from 12 to 8 after group play — harbors that same goal. The difference for this U.S. team: they demand it.
"The expectations are there, which is good," U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. "Soccer is growing in the States. The fanbase is expecting a lot more. Coming off the two results [victories over Netherlands and Germany] in Europe, it gives us the confidence and the motivation to do well. We just have to take it one game at a time. CONCACAF is not easy any more, not as easy as people think it is. We have to take it one game at a time."
The pragmatic approach illustrates the outmoded nature of those perceptions. A long, hard slog awaits the Americans as they embark on this journey. It is now time for them to cope with the demands presented to ensure they lift the title once more in the final in Philadelphia on July 26.