New-look Mexico, USA chase Gold Cup crown
© AFP

Mexico and USA are, as always, favourites to capture this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. The tournament, a biennial cup of nations for North, Central America and the Caribbean, will be played in 13 cities across the US between 7 and 28 July, with 12 competing nations drawn into three groups of four. Coming, as it does, in the middle of a busy point in the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying calendar, many of the top teams are sending experimental squads to the competition, including the States, Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras.

Group A consists of Mexico, whose six titles are a tournament record, Canada, Panama and island outsiders Martinique. Jose Manuel Chepo de la Torre is guiding Mexico through a troubled moment in Brazil 2014 qualifying and just returned from a group-stage exit at the FIFA Confederations Cup. A chance to run the rule over a new generation of players, most under 25 and all from the domestic league, will come as a relief to the manager as he hunts a third straight title for Mexico. The Chivas Guadalajara duo of Rafa Marquez Lugo and Marco Fabian will lead the team, along with Javier Orozco and Club America’s young ace Raul Jimenez.

Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes has also opted to rest a number of starters, including usual captain Felipe Baloy. However, with veteran goalkeeper Jaime Penedo between the posts, they will still be a competitive unit and aiming to equal or better their run to the final in 2005. Canada’s interim coach Colin Miller holds the reigns of a young side currently rebuilding after being dumped out of FIFA World Cup qualifying, while the francophone islanders from Martinique are hoping to spring an unlikely surprise. Frederic Piquionne, 34, of MLS side Portland Timbers, is their best-known player.

Group B is a wild card, with El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago all in with a shout of topping the standings. Honduras are the favourites on paper, as they are the only team in the section still alive in FIFA World Cup qualifying. Their coach, Luis Fernando Suarez, has decided against selecting a number of big-name players, but the Catrachos are still up among the royalty of the CONCACAF zone. Anderlecht-based Andy Najar will be a player to watch for these hopeful Hondurans. 

Trinidad and Tobago are coached by former Canada boss Stephen Hart, and will be keen to put the brakes on a slippery decline that began all the way back in 2007, a year after they qualified for their one and only FIFA World Cup in Germany. The presence of Stoke City striker Kenwyne Jones in the side makes the islanders look a good bet after failing to qualify for the last two Gold Cups. Island neighbours Haiti recently stretched Spain, narrowly losing 2-1 in a friendly, before creating a sensation by drawing with Italy. But consistency is not Haiti’s strong suit, so their fans will have to wait and see. El Salvador, for their part, are hoping to repeat the feat of 2011, when they progressed from the group stage in impressive fashion.

Group C sees the host USA lead the way along with Belize, Costa Rica and Cuba. Jurgen Klinsmann’s Americans are far-and-away the fancied side in this section. Landon Donovan returns from his self-imposed sabbatical to guide a side that also includes Oguchi Onyewu, MLS top scorer Jack McInerney and DaMarcus Beasley, who Klinsmann has named his captain. “I’m happy to fill in the role for Clint [Dempsey] in the moment and help out any way I can,” said the veteran Beasley, who returned to the team for the final round of Brazil 2014 qualifying after a long absence. “It’s always a privilege to represent your country, and to do it now as captain will be really special for me.”

Costa Rica, though resting a number of big-name stars, will still be a sturdy outfit. Top scorer Alvaro Saborio is in the team, as is Roy Miller, which will go some way to make up for the loss of Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz, who has been given the summer off. Belize and Cuba are not expected to make much of a mark, but in a tournament boasting so few stars in the top sides, the stage is set for some upsets.

A quarter-final round will follow the group stages, beginning on 20 July and will be followed by a final round of four on 24 July. The final will be played at Chicago’s Soldier Field four days later.