USA’s Stars and Stripes can book a direct spot at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup by winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which kicks off this week. The Americans, led by German icon Jurgen Klinsmann, boast a raft of players who starred at the FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil last year and go in as the team to beat, having won the tournament two years ago.
Should another challenger in the region lift the coveted trophy this time out, a play-off against holders and hosts the United States would be required to decide CONCACAF’s representative for the global competition in Russia. Six-time winners Mexico will be up there among the potential favourites, even without injured Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez.
The 12-team tournament runs from 7 to 26 July in 12 cities across the United States, plus two games in Canada. Costa Rica are also keen on their chances to pick up their first regional crown, topping the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for CONCACAF heading into the tournament – the first time ever a Gold Cup has begun with USA or Mexico not leading the region. The rest of the competition will remember Los Ticos’ exploits in Brazil last summer, where they beat Italy and Uruguay en route to the quarter-finals in a sensational run.
Klinsmann keen on results
USA’s German boss, in the job since 2011, has made a big show of testing new talent in the run-up to the tournament. But he has made a point to let local media know that, at the Gold Cup, the experiments end. The 13th running of the competition, which the Americans have won five times – one shy of arch-rivals Mexico – is about results, according to Klinsmann.
"We have a responsibility to win our big tournaments, like the Gold Cup," Klinsmann told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "Sometimes it’s the time to look around and other times it’s about getting the results."
To that end, the coach has selected the strongest side available, with 17 veterans of the Brazil 2014 team that reached the Round of 16. Among the big names are Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, who will wear the captain’s armband, and up-and-comer DeAndre Yedlin, providing pace as a versatile wing-back. They will be without retired talisman Landon Donovan, who was the hero of the 2013 Gold Cup-winning team and who took part in the last four editions of the competition.
The Americans will need to be on their toes from the start, drawn into a tricky Group A alongside 2013 Gold Cup runners-up Panama, Caribbean strivers Haiti and fallen Central American power Honduras who, after struggling to even qualify, will have a point to prove.
Klinsmann can also take heart in a positive result, 4-0 against Guatemala, in a recent warm-up friendly. It is more than Mexico can say about their preparations. Miguel Herrera’s men suffered a cruel blow in a pre-tournament friendly against Honduras, where the nation's second-top scorer of all time – Manchester United's Hernandez – broke his collarbone in a heavy collision. The No9 is expected to miss the entire competition after having surgery to repair the fracture.
Now the pressure will be on Giovani Dos Santos and returning striker Carlos Vela to provide the goals and the chances both. Mexico are the seeded team in Group C along with Guatemala, a resurgent Trinidad and Tobago and Cuba, who were recently knocked out of Russia 2018 qualifying and will be suffering a crisis of confidence.
Ticos search for first first
Costa Rica are led by captain and talisman Bryan Ruiz, whose exploits at the last World Cup will live on in Los Ticos’ lore forever. But they will be without outstanding goalkeeper Keylor Navas, understudy to Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, who suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon. “We’ve come so far and done so much,” Ruiz said of his side’s achievements, before adding a warning: “But we want more.”
It is yet to be seen whether the Central Americans can match the tactical scheme they showed in Brazil under new coach Paulo Wanchope, who was a member of the team that finished runners-up in 2002’s Gold Cup. But young striker Joel Campbell could make all the difference if he gets in the mood for goals in a Group B that looks eminently manageable. The Costa Ricans will meet Canada, fading Caribbean powers Jamaica and El Salvador, fast improving after a match-fixing scandal rocked the nation’s football.
The top two teams in the three groups move on to the knockout rounds, along with the best two third-place finishers, to make up the numbers for the quarter-finals. The final is scheduled for 26 July in Philadelphia. An American win will set them a date in Russia, but anything short will require more action to determine CONCACAF’s standard-bearer at the next Confederations Cup.