USA, Mexico set to resume rivalry
The United States could no longer stand it. It was June 25, 2011, and they had suffered too many indignities already. The Americans had taken an early 2-0 lead over archrivals Mexico in the Gold Cup final, only to ship four unanswered goals and go down 4-2. They’d been played to smithereens, really – almost as badly as when they lost the 2009 final to El Tri 5-0. The crowd of 93,400 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena had been embarrassingly pro-Mexican. And now the trophy was being handed out in Spanish as well. On their home turf.
So speaking to the press following the game, the players seethed. “CONCACAF should be ashamed of themselves,” goalkeeper Tim Howard fumed, after being forced to watch Mexico dance in jubilation on American soil. “I think it was a [expletive] disgrace that the entire post-match ceremony was in Spanish. You can bet your ass that if we were in Mexico City, it wouldn’t be all in English.”
It was a hiding that has haunted the USA. And that unwillingly and unwittingly sparked a new era. Head coach Bob Bradley was fired in the aftermath of that Gold Cup, in which the USA had wobbled well before the final, and replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann.
The Gold Cup is a deceptively difficult tournament. This biennial championship of the CONCACAF region, constituted of North and Central America and the Caribbean, is short on marquee names. It boasts no World Cup contenders. But in addition to Mexico and the USA, it is packed with solid and savvy teams like Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama. The latter three of those have beaten the Americans either in or since the 2011 Gold Cup, and Costa Rica has more than enough talent to as well.
Three groups of four teams play a quick round-robin, after which the two top teams and the best two of the three third-placed sides advance to the quarterfinals. And if the Americans’ group stage draw of Belize (July 9, Portland), Cuba (July 13, Salt Lake City) and Costa Rica (July 16, Hartford) looks forgiving, 2011’s Panama-Canada-Guadeloupe batch did too. But it took them a narrow 1-0 win over Guadeloupe in their final game to squeak through following a loss to the Panamanians.
Traditionally, this year’s tournament would be deemed an “off-year” edition, since it comes right on the back of a spate of World Cup qualifiers, as every other Gold Cup does. Typically, that meant the big countries still in the running for the World Cup would send a B-team, of sorts, to the regional championship. This was partly because only the other tournaments – 2011, 2007, 2003, etc. – sent their winners to the next Confederations Cup, an invaluable dress rehearsal staged in the host country the summer ahead of the World Cup, consisting of the six regional and the world champions and the home country.
A recent rule change, however, mandates that the winner of the next two Gold Cups will enter a playoff for the 2017 Confederations Cup, rendering each tournament equally meaningful.
What’s more, the favorites Mexico and the United States are unusually eager to win this edition.
The Americans want revenge, plain and simple. But Klinsmann has also stacked his squad with one-time national team contributors who will get a final tryout for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil. “You want to win a confederation competition,” he said recently. “It’s a huge competition in terms of being one year away from the World Cup and being able to see our players.”
Mexico, meanwhile, is in crisis. An alarming 1-0-5 (W-L-D) start to World Cup qualifying and a quick and inglorious exit from the Confederations Cup have left manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre a man whose job could be taken from him any day now. The Mexican federation claims this isn’t true. “There is no Plan B,” national team director Hector Gonzalez Inarritu said in a press conference last week. “I’m confident that we will qualify for the World Cup and we will win the Gold Cup.”
And if Mexico fails to accomplish the latter? This was never addressed. Draw your own conclusions.
After quarterfinals in Atlanta and Baltimore on July 20 and 21, respectively, and semifinals in Dallas on July 24, the final will await at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 28. As a footnote, the Americans beat Mexico there in a 2-1 come-from-behind win in the 2007 final.
How they would like to repeat that feat. And how Mexico, for their part, would like to put things right and win their third Gold Cup over the USA in a row.
Because for all those involved in the coming month, there is more at stake than the championship of the region alone.