Gold Cup set for power struggle
While the men who run CONCACAF wage war on each other in an embarrassing circus, the region’s soccer fans will soon be able to take solace in the fact that CONCACAF’s best players and teams are ready to kick off the 2011 Gold Cup this weekend.
The United States and Mexico enter the tournament as the headliners, with Mexico and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez getting top billing as defending champions. For U.S. head coach Bob Bradley, the tournament is a vital one because of the team’s stated desire to not only be regional champions, but also compete in the 2013 Confederations Cup, which winning this summer’s tournament qualifies the winner for.
The tournament means more than just winning the trophy for the United States. It means re-establishing itself as the region’s top team, and while the squad that lost to Mexico in the 2009 Gold Cup Final was a B team, the fact remains Mexico defeated the United States the last time the teams fielded full-strength squads against each other (in an August 2009 World Cup qualifier) and that 2009 loss in the Gold Cup final was such a thorough beating (5-0 Mexico) that anything short of a title this summer will leave the United States looking like a clear second fiddle after years of being the top team in CONCACAF.
Beating Mexico won’t be easy though, and the reality is that for the first time in several Gold Cups the United States doesn’t enter as the favorite. Mexico, led by ‘Chicharito’, Giovani Dos Santos and veteran Rafa Marquez, enters the tournament as the pic to win it all.
The role of underdog should serve the Americans well, even if it isn’t a completely deserved role. The reality is Mexico hasn’t beaten a full-strength U.S. team on American soil in more than a decade. That’s something veteran American standouts like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are fully aware of, a fact they’ve all helped to establish.
If the United States is going to win back the Gold Cup, it will need its defense to return to the dominance of past Gold Cup teams. The unsettled state of the centerback position makes the Americans look like less of a sure bet defensively, though the presence of Howard in goal will keep the United States from giving up too many goals.
Bradley will need Oguchi Onyewu to recapture the form he enjoyed before suffering a serious knee injury in 2009. Before the injury, Onyewu was a key figure in both the 2005 and 2007 U.S. Gold Cup triumphs, and with so many CONCACAF teams featuring dangerous forwards, Onyewu will need to be on his game if the United States are going to avoid any upsets, let alone beat Mexico.
Perhaps just as important as solidifying the central defense is the U.S. team’s need for a reliable forward to step up. This Gold Cup will be Jozy Altidore’s first and the 21-year-old striker will be looking to continue his past success against CONCACAF competition, while also putting aside his recent goal-scoring struggles with the national team.
The Gold Cup tournament is set up to showcase the United States and Mexico, but this year’s event could be the most competitive in years, with several teams looking capable of spoiling the anticipated USA-Mexico final.
Honduras comes in as the Central American champions, and while some European-based players have passed on taking part in the Gold Cup, the Catracho’s still have enough top talent to force its way into the final. With Tottenham’s Wilson Palacios and Wigan’s Hendry Thomas leading a potent midfield, Honduras looks poised to do well in the post Amado Guevara/Carlos Pavon era.
If there is a team poised to do well as a true dark-horse candidate, it’s Jamaica. The reigning Caribbean champions boast more MLS players than the U.S. team, and features dangerous and speedy attacking talent capable of unsettling any defense in the tournament.
Costa Rica is another team capable of knocking off one of the region’s powers this summer. With FC Twente star Bryan Ruiz and Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio leading the way, the ‘Ticos’ are arguably the team most likely to be a surprise Gold Cup finalist.
What Jamaica, Honduras, Costa Rica, and even Canada are capable of doing is knocking off the United States and Mexico if either brings less than its best to this summer’s Gold Cup, but if the two regional powers can avoid the upset, we should be treated to a final for the ages. Mexico will be eager to solidify its place as the top team in CONCACAF, while finally defeating the likes of Donovan, Dempsey and Howard on American soil.
For the United States, winning a third title in four Gold Cups is about more than just lifting the trophy again. It’s about building momentum toward the 2014 World Cup and about reminding Mexico that the United States is still the best team in the region.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.