CONCACAF giants in the blocks
Long-time arch-rivals Mexico and USA will be rampaging favourites when the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off Sunday 5 June. El Tri and the Stars and Stripes have won eight of the ten previous instalments of the competition, a biennial cup of nations for North, Central America and the Caribbean zone.
Mexico are defending champions, having humiliated the host Americans two years ago with a resounding 5-0 drubbing in front of a full house in the final in New Jersey. Back then, however, both the Mexicans and the USA took second-string sides to the Gold Cup and, as a result, the tournament was not the spectacle it might have been. This time out, spread across 13 venues in the United States, there will be no depleted squads, no excuses and no half measures as the 12 participating nations vie for a single place at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.
USA coach Bob Bradley has named a full-strength squad, calling on top Europe-based performers Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard as well as domestic schemer Landon Donovan to form the core of his squad. “Winning the Gold Cup this year is our top priority,” said Bradley, who led the Americans to the final of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup after winning that year’s Gold Cup with many of the same players in his current squad. “We have a very experienced group and we will need all 23 players to contribute.”
Bradley’s boys are tipped to find their through what looks a tricky Group C. Canada, who lost to the Americans in a contentious semi-final of the 2007 Gold Cup, will represent their biggest threat. The Canucks are the only nation beside the States and Mexico to have won a Gold Cup crown (2000) and boast an interesting combination of talent like playmaker Dwayne DeRosario and jet-heeled up-an-coming Norwich City striker Simeon Jackson.
Rounding out the hopefuls in the section are Panama, who lost to the Americans on penalties in the 2005 Gold Cup final and Guadeloupe who, despite a lack of international pedigree, have improved dramatically of late. An overseas holding of France, the colourful islanders reached the knockout rounds of the last two Gold Cups, using primarily French-based players.
Mexico are led by coach Jose Manuel de la Torre and a bevy of stars, most notably Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez of English champions Manchester United, and captain, and former Barcelona idol, Rafa Marquez. There are eight overseas-based players in the side, including Andres Guardado and Carlos Salcido, and four from recently crowned CONCACAF Champions League winners Monterrey. Former youth star Carlos Vela was sensationally left out of the side.
The Mexicans have won the most Gold up titles, the 2009 crown bringing their tally to five, one more than their heated rivals to the North, the United States. This time out they will line up in Group A, with Costa Rica, El Salvador and Cuba standing in their way. “I won’t go so far as to say that we are favourites,” said De La Torre “We are aspiring to be champions, but there are teams in this tournament that could surprise us.”
A familiar foe
The Costa Ricans will represent Mexico’s sternest test in what looks a fairly simple group, with the Ticos coached by no less a familiar face to Mexican football fans than their long-time manager Ricardo La Volpe. They also boast the creative verve of Netherlands-based Bryan Ruiz, who is being called the best player in CONCACAF by many in the know.
Honduras, runners-up in 1991, take top billing in a Group B that also includes Guatemala, Jamaica and Grenada. Los Catrachos – who went out in the first round of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa – arrive at the Gold Cup with a strong side revolving around the England-based trio of Wilson Palacios, Hendry Thomas and Maynor Figueroa.
Jamaica, however, will have something to say about Honduras’ simple road to the knockout rounds. The Reggae Boyz are led by former midfield hero Theodore Whitmore and a rising talent in New York Red Bulls speed merchant Dane Richards. “Jamaica is rebuilding and I think this team can do big things,” Richards told FIFA.com, pointing to the side’s recent success at the Caribbean Cup as evidence of a renaissance on the island.