Favorites are chasing Gold Cup glory

The CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off on Fox Soccer this week with the USA meeting Canada Tuesday (live coverage begins at 7:30 PM ET) in the region’s most important tournament.

The Americans are expected to tussle with tourney favorites Mexico for the crown and the right to represent the region at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil.

The Fox Soccer crew sat down to break down the tournament, the Mexican national team, and the growing scandal in the region in the first of two previews for this summer’s marquee event.

Q. Eric, you played in the tournament. Tell us how important this is for the players and what this means for the teams.

ERIC: As far as the players are concerned, this is the opportunity outside of World Cup qualifying to prove that you are the best. That’s what our goal was, that’s what we thought about, and in my experience, this tournament was always the second most important on the calendar, only behind the World Cup. The players look forward to it, they enjoy playing in it, and it’s great for the fans. The most important thing here is to win. It’s not to “play well,” or to experiment: it’s to win. We’ve had our struggles in this tournament, too — I remember we played a game against Panama, and we walked off the field admitting to each other that that team was a lot better than we had given them credit for. You can take nothing for granted here. This is a difficult tournament.

Q. Mexico come into this tournament looking very, very dangerous. Take us through what’s going on with them.

JP: They are back and ready to defend their 2009 Gold Cup title. Head Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre has the tournament’s most exciting player in Javier Hernandez. But Chicharito is not alone, as Gio Dos Santos, Guillermo Ochoa, Rafa Marquez, and others are all on board for this Gold Cup. There is more at stake for Mexico at this Gold Cup than when they won it two years ago, when there was no Confederations Cup prize that went along with their 5-0 win vs the USA. Just like it is with the USA, Mexico is expected to win this tournament. Anything less, and the team will be subject to harsh criticism at home from fans and the media.

ERIC: Every time this tournament happens, everyone expects the USA to skate through and get to Mexico, because Mexico in the past has always been able to capitalize, but this is a good team. Not just Chicharito; Jesus Zavala is pretty good, Carlos Salcido has been good at Fulham and Ricardo Osorio is not a bad player. And then they have Gerardo Torrado right in the middle of then park, still the veteran, holding it down. The attitude they have in that position is very consistent: it’s not always calm and cool, but it is a guy who inspires, and that’s Torrado. I’m also glad to see Guillermo Ochoa back in the nets; I think he makes them a better team.

BRIAN: Yeah, it has some gigantic names. It’s built around some veterans — Sinha, Torrado and Rafa Marquez — but then you’ve got some twenty-somethings that absolutely can raise the level. Hector Moreno, dos Santos, Zavala and of course Chicharito. This is a “who’s who” of Mexican soccer.

JP: Yes, and of course Hernandez is coming off a great year with his club team, Manchester United. The question is, can he maintain that level, after a long season in Europe, and extend it for the Gold Cup?

BRIAN: I think it’s going to be interesting to see how De la Torre gets the guys back from overseas and assimilates them into this group, but I think this is clearly a new era of Mexican soccer. They might have a little blip in their transition, but from the standpoint of their ability, style of play and pride, Mexico joins the USA as the favorites.

Q. A lot of folks expect a USA-Mexico meeting. But who are the favorites here?

DAVE: Mexico are the favorites. Having said that, they are and have been a team where you kind of wonder when they will hit their full potential. They want to win this tournament, they are loaded with talent, and yet, we’ve heard this before. So many times they have been tripped up or underachieved, and you do start to wonder. That said, they are so loaded, so experienced and have so much potential, and we saw that in their warmup match the other night [a 3-0 win over New Zealand in Denver.] The big guns are here, Chicharito had a huge season, and they want to show that their performance at the last Gold Cup was no fluke.

BRIAN: I wouldn’t say Mexico gets a free pass any more, and the American game has improved, but this is a good team, and they’ve got some heavy hitters. It’s going to be interesting to see Andres Guardado out on the flanks and how dos Santos fits in, but everyone will be paying attention to Chicharito and what he can do inside the penalty box. Look, Mexico’s possession game tears people apart, and the more they can force teams to chase, the further ahead they get in matches. The skill level of this team is superior to 99% of anyone else we see in CONCACAF. They are stocked, but I do think the USA has to be considered a favorite here.

Q. Who else should we keep an eye on here?

BRIAN: I think Honduras is the other team to keep an eye on: they look to me like they will bypass Costa Rica in the near future. But in these tournaments, anything can happen.

JP: Dark horses for me include Jamaica with Donovan Ricketts in goal, Honduras, coming off an appearance at the last World Cup, and maybe even Canada if they can get solid play in goal. With Dwayne De Rosario on the field for the Canadians, surely they should get second place in Group C, which would put them in a good spot in the quarter finals. I do think though that anything other than a USA vs Mexico final will be a surprise.

Q. Of course, there’s a big elephant in the room: the bribery scandal that has enveloped FIFA and the involvement of CONCACAF officials.

ERIC: Well, from the players’ point of view, the reality is that when we have to talk about some of these other things, we shake our heads and smile. We know these things are happening, but we have a job to do. These are not our problems.

DAVE: I think it is a shame it is coming at this time: we had a great Champions League season, a dream final between Man U and Barcelona, and we’re all looking forward to the Gold Cup. Instead of talking about the sport, we’re talking about back-room deals and World Cup bids, and I think it’s exhausting. But, just as the NFL fans would rather be talking about mini-camps than circuit courts, and NBA fans would rather be talking about draft choices than lockouts, this is where we are. I don’t think it will impact the tournament — everyone knows what’s at stake here — and I think the show will just go on. But it’s tough.

JP: We have all seen the reports and the confusion over alleged bribery attempts involving CONCACAF’s now suspended President Jack Warner. While the charges are serious, none of the players or fans will have this on their minds when that first ball is kicked on Sunday. Just like it is in our everyday political lives, when there is a scandal of any sort, the government rolls on with other people in place. The 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup will roll along, even if other news comes out about these off the field incidents, during the competition.

NEXT TIME: The gang breaks down the Americans and talks about the key guys to watch and the decisions Bob Bradley has to make.