USA need to shake a serious case of jet-lag before hosting the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup from 3 to 26 July. Fresh off return flights from Johannesburg, where they shocked the world to pick up silver at the FIFA Confederations Cup, the hosts now line up hoping to win their third regional title on the bounce. In their way will be the usual challenge of arch-rivals Mexico, in-form Costa Rica and Honduras and a raft of lesser lights looking to spring surprises.
USA coach Bob Bradley touted the accomplishments of his first team in South Africa, telling FIFA.com they had "opened eyes and done a lot for soccer in the United States." Now the ace tactician has another test before him: keeping the Stars and Stripes firmly entrenched as the major power in the CONCACAF Zone. Originally Bradley had intended to use only four players from his Confederations Cup squad - Charlie Davies, Freddy Adu, Heath Pearce and Luis Robles - in the regional finals, but he announced on Thursday that he would be taking advantage of a special CONCACAF provision to expand his squad list from 23 to 30, helping to ease the stress of playing back-to-back tournaments.
We are going to this Gold Cup with the aim of taking the title, and I think it's a realistic one.
The last-minute additions to the US team are: strikers Conor Casey and Jozy Altidore, midfielders Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan, defender Jonathan Bornstein and goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Not all of these seven players, all of whom took part in South Africa, will be eligible for selection in every USA game.
Bradley's men will open their account against Grenada on 4 July, Independence Day in the USA. The Grenadians are coached by Tommy Taylor and are the smallest-ever side to take part in the region's showpiece. Largely amateur, the Spice Boyz do have a few professionals in US-based Shalrie Joseph and Byron Bubb. The other teams in Group B are Haiti and Honduras.
Despite expectations back home in Honduras, Catracho Coach Reynaldo Rueda will be without speed merchant David Suazo, creator Amado Guevara, top scorer Carlos Pavon and English Premier League duo Wilson Palacios and Maynor Figueroa.
Central American toppers Costa Rica, over in Group A, will be fancying their chances this time around. Rodrigo Kenton's youthful outfit currently rule the roost in the final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, in first place by two clear points. They recently defeated a full-strength USA 3-1 in San Jose, forcing pundits to sit up and take notice of the side. "We are going to this Gold Cup with the aim of taking the title, and I think it's a realistic one," the coach recently told FIFA.com. Though not bringing his full side, Kenton is using a good number of first teamers, most notably veteran Walter Centeno and young creator Celso Borges.
In the section alongside the Ticos are El Salvador, Canada and Caribbean champs Jamaica. Although the Canucks famously won the competition back in 2000, the Salvadorans and the Reggae Boyz will be the ones in with a shout of making the larger waves. Carlos de los Cobos' Cuscatlecos are still alive in South Africa 2010 qualifying and the tricky Jamaicans are looking to rebuild with a youthful, largely local squad.
New look for Mexicans
Mexico, like the hosts Americans, are sending an inexperienced side to these finals. Without Rafa Marquez, Pavel Pardo and Andres Guardado, coach Javier Aguirre will rely on young guns like Gio Dos Santos and Carlos Vela. Also in the team are Jonny Magallon, Omar Bravo and Memo Ochoa. Mexico have not won the title since 2003 and will be desperate to reclaim a piece of their fading reputation as regional kings. El Tri, who have never failed to reach the quarter-finals, are up against Guadeloupe, a tiny French holding in the Caribbean that shocked the last finals in 2007 by reaching the last four, Central American minnows Nicaragua and 2005 runners-up Panama.
This Gold Cup, the tenth instalment since renaming the old CONCACAF Championship, will run through most of July in 13 US cities. The top two finishers from each group, plus the two best third-place teams, move into the last eight. The final will be played on 26 July in New York.