Gold Cup has developed into major tournament

Giovani Elber and Brazil were stymied by U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller in 1998. Keller's performance in the 1-0 victory still stands as perhaps the best individual display in tournament. 

VINCE BUCCI/AFP/Getty Images

Chuck Blazer has been in the headlines for some of the wrong reasons lately, although those who regard FIFA reform as much needed will perhaps regard him as heroic for helping to expose corruption both in the world game and here at home in CONCACAF.

There is no question, however, that Blazer’s belief in the American soccer fan and his knowledge of our multi-ethnic society is the reason why the CONCACAF Gold Cup has been transformed from a minor event into a mega show, one that will kick off across North America Tuesday night and surely will play to full houses in some places that didn’t know the event existed 25 years ago.

It was Blazer who helped to convince the CONCACAF movers and shakers that creating a regional championship and locating it mainly in the United States was a risk worth taking. He knew that television would eventually have an interest in the competition and that the fans of teams like Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico  and Trinidad & Tobago were guaranteed to support their sides in the right venues.

Perhaps more important, he also understood that making the Gold Cup into a "big" event was the perfect way to sell it to an American sports public that embraces "occasions" even if many then ignore soccer until the next "occasion."

And he knew that if the Gold Cup became something special, then every one of the region’s soccer-loving nations would put more into their national teams, more into promotion and more into the passion which surrounds the competition. A by-product, perhaps one that even the CONCACAF leaders couldn’t have envisioned, has been the marked improvement by this region’s teams at the World Cup level.

The tournament didn’t exactly fly out of the gate in 1991 when Tony Meola led the United States to the first championship. If you are going to be big time, you have to think that way. The venues for the first Gold Cup were the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Bowl, a bold move at a time when the old NASL had folded, the United States did not have a professional league and global critics were spending much of their time "explaining" to their audiences that placing the 1994 World Cup in this beknighted land would make a laughing stock of FIFA.

The Coliseum had plenty of empty seats in the group stage, including a low of 4,797 to watch Jamaica play Honduras. Even popular Mexico was unable to attract more than 36,703 in an 80,000 seat venue for its group finale. Over at the Rose Bowl, a doubleheader featuring USA vs. Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago vs. Costa Rica managed to draw just 6,344.

When Meola backstopped the USA to a 0-0 draw and eventual 4-3 penalty kick victory over Honduras in the final, there were reportedly 41,103 curious enough to see what the fuss was about.

It was enough for CONCACAF to persevere, and the result was enough to get the Mexicans thinking that finishing third to the upstarts from the USA wasn’t good enough. El Tri won the next three tournaments, including the 1993 title when the event was split between American and Mexican host cities for the first time (they did that again in 2003).

By 1998, with the United States qualified for a third straight World Cup appearance and Major League Soccer beginning to establish itself on the American sports map, the Gold Cup was also starting to gain some traction. No, the crowds weren’t consistent sellouts, but the night of Feb. 10, 1998 did plenty to establish both the American national team and the event.

That was the evening when 12,298 fans in the Coliseum came to see powerful competition guests Brazil, the World Cup winners, take apart the Americans in a semifinal. Instead, they saw one of the most remarkable individual performances in U.S. soccer history as goalkeeper Kasey Keller played the match of his life. Preki scored the only goal, Brazilian great Romario was so often beaten by Keller that on one occasion he shook hands with the U.S. keeper following an unbelieveable save.

"It was a privilege to be on the field with him tonight," said the gracious Brazilian super star in a dressing room still trying to figure out how the World Cup winners had lost a 1-0 decision to a group of relative unknowns.

Mexico won the final before 91,256 fans on a goal from El Matador, Luis Hernandez, to prevent the soccer world from careering completely off its axis, but the Gold Cup had turned a significant corner.

Two years later came the upset of all upsets — three of them really. With the competition split between Florida and California, it was widely expected that the final would be another in the burgeoning rivalry between El Tri and the Americans. Nobody expected what happened in the quarterfinals: the hosts were held to a 2-2 draw by another guest side, Colombia, before the Colombians won the PK shoot-out. Out in California, Canada scored twice in the last 10 minutes and stunned Mexico, 2-1. That left guests Colombia and Peru and CONCACAF’s Canada and Trinidad & Tobago to comprise the last four. No, those weren’t the attractions the fans wanted to see: only 3,500 turned up San Diego to see Colombia beat Peru. There were 2,800 in Los Angeles where Canada knocked out T&T. The final, when Canada won its only Gold Cup by beating Colombia, drew 7,000 in the Coliseum where the now well-known Canadian soccer television analyst, Jason DeVos, scored one of the two goals in a 2-0 triumph.

The Gold Cup was well-enough established by then to be able to survive a surprising set of matches that did not include popular Mexico and the increasingly popular U.S. national team. The next tournament, played at the Rose Bowl and in Miami, added another layer to the increasing importance of the event.

Played in mid-January with the final on February 2, 2002, the Rose Bowl matches still proved a hard-sell, but yielded the most significant lesson for the region’s teams: both Costa Rica’s Alexandre Guimaraes and the United States’ Bruce Arena used the Gold Cup to develop squad depth for the upcoming Korea/Japan World Cup. Both reached the Gold Cup final and used their achievements as a springboard to improved performances in Asia. Indeed, one could argue that both nations have gone on from that platform to emerge as consistent world powers, not just regional upstarts who occasionally cause a ripple in the global waters.

The 2003 final in the Estadio Azteca saw Mexico gain a memorable 1-0 win over Brazil in front of the requisite 80,000-plus fans. By 2007, the competition could boast enough power to draw back-to-back sellouts at Soldier Field in Chicago sellouts for its semifinal and final programs. USA nipped Mexico, 2-1 in the final. At that point, a true rivalry had been created as both teams and their fans were developing a mutual respect/hate relationship that suggested the pairing could take its place alongside some of the better known international rivalries. While this hemisphere’s Big Two might lack a century of history, many Americans now had two national teams they cared about, filled with players they knew and followed consistently.

Mexico bounced back to win the next two competitions, including the 2011 comeback, 4-2 win in the Rose Bowl that ended Bob Bradley’s tenure in charge of the U.S. team and continued a run of Mexican greatness which would see the country win both a FIFA Under-17 championship and an Olympic gold medal.

This year, the USA is the defending champion, having beaten Panama 1-0 in the 2013 final. They’ll face not only a resurgent group of challengers, but a demanding traveling road show of a schedule as Gold Cup 2015 criss-crosses the country before the July 26 final in Philadelphia.

What began as a wild gamble has become a sure thing. It’s played in the big venues, in the cities where MLS has put down sturdy roots, in spots where the legions of fans who divide their support between their Old Countries and their New will provide the major event atmosphere. Indeed, just about everything that could have been predicted by an optimist like Blazer in 1991 has come to pass.