When it comes to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, predicting the Final Four teams might not be difficult as you would think for an international soccer tournament.
Let's face it: You are halfway there if you select Mexico and the United States, the confederation's imposing twin North American towers. They are, hands down, the class of the 12-team field.
How dominant are the two countries? Well, Mexico has won five Gold Cup titles, the U.S. four. Of the 10 previous championship games, there has been only one competition – 2000 – in which the final did not have one of the two superpowers.
So, which two countries will reach the semifinals as well? The top candidates include Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Canada and Guadeloupe. The tournament, which kicks off Sunday and climaxes with the final at the Rose Bowl on June 25, really doesn't get interesting until the knockout rounds, when eight teams qualify for the quarterfinals.
Cup officials have placed the U.S. and Mexico as far apart as they could to keep the two favorites away from each other, unless one team slips up big time in the group stages and somehow manages to finish third.
This tournament is much more compact than the World Cup, in which teams can play as many as seven games over 31 days. With a maximum of six games over 21 days, and as few as three days before games, coaches have to be more judicious resting key players for the long haul.
Here's a quick look on how the three groups and 12 teams stack up:
Every Mexican soccer fan expects their heroes and the defending cup champions to take the final victory lap at the Rose Bowl.
Let's face it: El Tri is loaded with veterans (central defender Rafa Márquez and midfielder Andrés Guardado) and star strikers Javier Chicharito Hernández and Giovani dos Santos, among other standout players. The charge of coach José Manuel de la Torre is to make sure the team doesn't implode or run off track for a silly reason.
The last time the Ticos played an important soccer match in the U.S., they were only minutes from clinching a third consecutive trip to the World Cup. Their World Cup hopes came crashing down when Jonathan Bornstein scored an 11th-hour goal to give the U.S. a 2-2 draw to boost Central American rival Honduras to South Africa.
The Costa Ricans, who kick off the Cup against Cuba in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday night, will pin their scoring hopes on striker Bryan Ruiz (Twente Enschede, Netherlands). Striker Alvaro Saborio (22 goals in 64 international matches), who helped Real Salt Lake reach the CONCACAF Champions League final, has struggled in recent weeks.
Argentine Ricardo La Volpe, who directed Mexico to the 2006 World Cup, is the Ticos' fourth coach since the 2009 Gold Cup, when they were eliminated by Mexico in the semifinals.
It seems that every time a Cuban National Team comes to the U.S. to play in a Gold Cup or in Olympic qualifying, several players will defect. The big question is whether this year's team will lose a talented player or two by jumping ship.
Despite the fact that most Cuban players don't perform overseas, the team has been more than competitive. Roberto Linares, who plays for powerhouse Villa Clara, is the big man up front, scoring twice in the Digicel Caribbean Cup (Gold Cup qualifying tournament). Villa Clara goalkeeper Odelin Molina, 36, allowed only two games in six Caribbean Cup matches. They could squeak through to the quarterfinals.
The Cuscatlecos haven't gotten out of the opening round in one piece since reaching the quarterfinals, twice in their history (the last time in 2003). And, it doesn't appear as thought the Salvadorans will do it a third time, especially with the difficult group with which they will to compete.
Rubén Israel, who took over the coaching reins in April, has his work cut out for him, because he has other one player performing abroad – forward Arturo Alvarez (Real Salt Lake). The Salvadorans will be thrown to the wolves in their cup opener, playing Mexico in Arlington on Sunday night. Their roster includes Portland Timbers defender and American-born, Steve Purdy, whose mother is El Salvadoran.
A year after playing in its first World Cup in 28 years in 2010, the Copa Centroamerica champions are primed to continue its success. But the Hondurans have struggled in lead-up games to the Gold Cup. When the bell rings for Los Catrachos, however, they should be competitive.
Goalkeeper Noel Valladares (Olimpia), England-based midfielders Wilson Palacios (Tottenham), Ramon Nuñez (Leeds United) and Hendry Thomas (Wigan Athletic) and striker Carlo Costly (Atlas, Mexico) are expected to play key roles for this counter-attacking side.
Given the number of players performing overseas, the Reggae Boyz have great expectations. They are probably the best Jamaican team since the 1998 team that qualified for the World Cup. The Jamaicans suffered a major blow when Omar Cummings, still recovering from a sprained ankle while playing for the Colorado Rapids, was taken off the roster. They should have enough talent to reach the quarterfinals.
The Jamaicans should be comfortable playing in the U.S., because they have eight Major League Soccer players on their roster. That includes goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts (Los Angeles Galaxy), defender Shavar Thomas (Sporting Kansas City), speedy midfielder Dane Richards (New York Red Bulls) and forward Ryan Johnson (San Jose Earthquakes).
By contrast, the Guatemalans do not have great expectations, having qualified as the fifth and last Central American team. In eight previous appearances Los Chapines have reached the knockout rounds only twice; its best finish was fourth place in 1996. Veteran striker Carlos Ruiz, who had announced his international retirement in 2009, is back.
Ruiz who recently scored a golazo for the Philadelphia Union, still can be dangerous despite his relatively advanced age (32) for a starting international forward. Chicago Fire midfielder Marco Pappa also is expected to be a vital performer.
Already considered the weakest team of the tournament, Grenada's chances were further hurt when midfielder Shalrie Joseph, arguably the team's best player, pulled out less than a week before its opening match to get his act together with the New England Revolution. The Spice Boyz also lost the services of Carolina RailHawks forward Kithson Bain to injury.
Coach Michael Adams called in nine England-based players, including defender Benedict Modeste (Queens Park Rangers), midfielders Ricky Charles (QPR) and Patrick Modeste and forward Delroy Facey (QPR). Earning a point will be considered an accomplishment.
Barring a ton of injuries, a rash of yellow- of red-card suspensions or just plain sub-par performances, the Americans should not only qualify for the knockout rounds, but they should reach the final.
Two stats stand out: the U.S. is 37-4-6 in Gold Cup home matches, which includes a 23-0-2 record in the first round. Many more players stand out: goalkeeper Tim Howard (Everton, England), midfielders Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Clint Dempsey (Fulham, England) and Michael Bradley (Aston Villa, England).
If the U.S. has a weakness, it's at the forward positions. Juan Agudelo, 18, (New York Red Bulls) is pushing Jozy Altidore (Bursaspor, Turkey), who has struggled finding playing time in Europe, for a starting spot.
The Canadians are trying to rediscover glories of the past when they reached the 1986 World Cup and won their first and only Gold Cup crown in 2000. Attacking midfielder Dwayne De Rosario (New York Red Bulls) is the lone player still performing from that championship side.
Coach Stephen Hart will be counting on midfielder Atiba Hutchinson (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands) and Julian de Guzmán (Toronto FC) and forward Simeon Jackson (Norwich City, England). One intriguing selection was Ali Gerba of the Montreal Impact, which plays in the second division in U.S. domestic soccer (North American Soccer League). Gerba has been productive internationally.
Don't laugh. This is one dangerous team. Given the performances of this Caribbean island in the past two Gold Cups – reaching the semifinals in 2007 and the quarterfinals in 2009 – it would not be surprising if Guadeloupe reaches the knockout rounds yet again. While it cannot participate in World Cup qualifying because it is still an overseas department of France and plays as an associate member of FIFA, the Gold Cup is Guadeloupe's World Cup. The team is captained by Sporting Kansas City midfielder Stephane Auvray.
Don't mention the U.S. to Panama because the Americans have ushered the team out of the last three tournaments. The Panamanians lost to the U.S. in the 2005 final via penalty kicks and was eliminated in the 2007 and 2009 quarterfinals. If you use that backward progression, Panama will not get out of the opening round.
The Central American team's strength is defense, which allowed only one goal in five Copa Centroamericana games. Key players include goalkeeper Jaime Penedo (Municipal, Guatemala), an 11-year pro with over 50 caps, and defender Luis Henríquez (Lech Poznan, Poland), one of three European-based players on the team. Luis Tejada (Juan Aurich, Peru) and Blas Pérez (León, Mexico) and Luis Rentería (Real Cartagena, Colombia) are expected to provide goals.
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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