This Friday, the Gold Cup kicks off with French Guiana versus Canada at Red Bull Arena. The Yanks play Saturday afternoon against Panama.
Each group has been broken down to four types of teams. You’ll hear about a contender for the title, a challenger who could push for the finals, a dark horse ready to pull a shock, and a dreamer who has accomplished a lot just to reach this competition. We’ll also help you target the must-see game of the group and one player to watch.
Los Ticos have earned a lot of attention since the golden days of their 2014 run to the World Cup Quarterfinal. While they are a consistent threat to take points from both the United States and Mexico, they’ve underwhelmed in the post-Brazil tournaments. They bowed out in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Gold Cup. During last year’s Copa America, they couldn’t break through the group stage. They even scuffled to a fourth place finish in this winter’s Copa Centroamericana. (It was their worst showing since 1995 breaking a streak of 10 straight top-two finishes.)
Still, Costa Rica boasts one of the most fundamentally talented squads in the tournament. Even without first choice goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Los Ticos have fielded a stout defense this year. Over seven matches, they’ve only had one where their opponents scored more than once. Unfortunately, a feeble attack has undercut the strong back line and contributed to the team’s lackluster 2-5-2 record in 2017. When your top scorer is Minnesota United defender Francisco Calvo (with two) you have a problem with your offense. Minnesotan fans will be watching for Calvo and his fellow Loon Johan Venegas to perform well.
Often forgotten in the focus on CONCACAF’s top three teams is the quietly consistent Honduras side. “La H” comes in with considerable confidence having dominated their local rivals in the Copa Centroamericano. Unfortunately, they also haven’t taken a point from an opponent outside of Central America since a victory against Trinidad and Tobago last November.
The only team not named “United States” or “Mexico” to win a Gold Cup is Canada. (Their 2000 run saw them win only three games, against Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Colombia to clinch the cup.) The Canucks have only hit the field three times this year, but will hope that some of their bright young things like Ballou Tabla or Raheem Edwards can bring some magic. They will be without their star striker, Cyle Larin, but he may be called in after the group stages.
This will mark the first time that French Guiana has made the Gold Cup. They earned their spot after an arduous six-match slog through rain-drenched Caribbean fields including a shocking 5-2 win over Haiti. (Despite going down by two goals in the first 30 minutes, former French youth star Sloan Privat hit a hat-trick to send les Yanas Dokos through.)
Los Ticos need to start well and the strong defense of Honduras will present a sizable test for their floundering attack. Honduras will want to establish a strong start against a team they’ve already topped this year. For an added dash of drama, it’s worth noting that “La H”‘s coach, Jorge Luis Pinto, led Costa Rica to the quarterfinals in Brazil.
The former youth-international was instrumental in helping his family’s beloved Rangers come back from oblivion to the Scottish Premiership. Now out of contract, Aird is still just 22 and possesses the kind of overlapping speed that suits Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath’s preferred style of play.
The Yanks will obviously want to avoid finishing fourth for the third-straight year in their major summer tournament. After a baffling semifinal defeat against Jamaica in 2015, calls for “Jurgen Out” rose in volume and intensity across the country. A similar showing in the Copa America Centenario last summer was frustrating but fitting. This year, Bruce Arena will try to lead an increasingly cohesive side to a trophy he won twice before (2002, 2005).
Arena chose to bring together a familiar and largely successful side for this year’s tournament. National team stalwarts Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore will all be present. Fans will also see crucial young cogs Christian Pulisic, Kellyn Acosta, and Jordan Morris. Rather than use the tournament as an extended trial for unproven talents, Arena seems poised to use it as a gilded confidence booster before the final push for World Cup 2018. If Arena ignores the eight uncapped call-ups, local fans might forgive the “snub” given to local striker Christian Ramirez. (If they do play and Arena looks to expand his pool of players, well, no one cheers as passive-aggressively as we do in Minnesota.)
Perpetually bridesmaids in CONCACAF competitions, Panama should hope for a breakthrough this year. In addition to strong recent form, the Canal Men are coming to the end of the road for legendary forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada. At 36 and 35, the striking stars don’t have much time left. Still, they can threaten any opponent on the pitch.
Nicaragua doesn’t have Panama’s pedigree, but they do have a host of young players who have established a solid, defensively-minded side. Josue Quijano, Jason Casco, and captain Manuel Rosas are familiar with one another at the back, playing together for both country and club (Real Estelí FC).
Les Matinino have a scant eight points in 11 Gold Cup Final matches. (That’s five fewer points than Guadeloupe and seven fewer than Colombia, who isn’t even a part of CONCACAF). However, as they are ineligible to appear in the World Cup (thanks colonialism!) this is their greatest challenge. Trust that they’ll make the most of it.
Panama’s attack will hammer away at Nicaragua’s defense. If Los Pinoleros of Nicaragua want to make the second round, they have to get a result here.
Delem has broken out this year as a fill-in for the Seattle Sounders. However, the defending MLS champs may be in the market for an upgrade. So Delem can seize this opportunity to show he can also get up the field as a focal point of the Martinique attack.
Mexico is the current Gold Cup champion. However, their title run came with a very different squad. With El Tri’s best and brightest getting their feet wet in Russia, this Mexico side has a lot to prove.
Only three players will be actively defending a title they personally won in 2015: goalkeeper Moíses Muñoz, defender Jorge Torres Nilo, and midfielder Jesús Dueñas. They’ll offer a needed veteran presence with 13 teammates coming to the cup with five or fewer caps. The entirely domestic-based lineup should be familiar with one another from various Liga MX matches, but will rely on the coaches and trainers to guide them against their opponents. Beyond the trophy, players should aim to impress manager Juan Carlos Osorio, who will need practiced and confident players to take over key spots in the national side. A strong showing, particularly among defenders and the talented young Guadalajara midfield pairing of Orbelín Pineda and Rodolfo Pizarro, could reinforce Mexico for years to come.
The maddeningly inconsistent Reggae Boyz finished second to Mexico in 2015 and consistently challenge both Caribbean and Central American opponents. They also have fallen apart in high pressure qualifiers and been totally dismantled by average sides like Peru. Loons defender Jermaine Taylor has been called into the squad and along with Calvo will be one of the three Loons in the Gold Cup.
Los Cuscatelcos have struggled to find success in the Gold Cup. In nine trips they have yet to go beyond the Quarterfinals.(For comparison’s sake, Panama has made the semifinals four times in seven trips.) Still, this trip may be different. For the first time El Salvador has a host of experienced players reaching their prime together.
The tiny Dutch colony will make its first appearance in the Gold Cup. Dutch legend Patrick Kluivert helmed most of their run (before Paris Saint-Germain made him their director of Football). Kluivert’s second in command, Remko Bicentini, inherited many of the young European-based stars recruited by Kluivert (including Aston Villa rampaging right back Leandro Bacuna). Recent draws with El Salvador and Nicaragua suggest this squad may do more than make up the numbers.
The two teams may meet in the Caribbean Cup finals on June 25th. Whether they do or not, this will be the best way to see if Kluivert’s Kids can take the next step with Curacao. It will also likely reflect whether we see a dangerous or dampened Jamaica.
Flores has become a reliable starter for both El Salvador and the New York Cosmos. He isn’t a domineering presence in the air, but offers a strong vision in the center of the field. (Given the success Minnesota United fans have seen for NASL players who move up a level, he’s certainly intriguing.)
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