With the Women’s World Cup and Copa America tournaments in the books, we turn our attention to the CONCACAF region and the 12 teams competing in the regional Gold Cup competition. With the opener of Panama vs. Haiti set for July 7, let’s take a closer look at the competing squads and how they stack up heading into the tournament.
1) United States
While the U.S. is ranked lower than two other teams in this competition by FIFA, it’s important to note that their recent matches have been against some of the European powerhouses like Germany and the Netherlands. They have done quite well against these highly-ranked teams. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has been fine-tuning his lineup and is looking at a long list of players who can play his style of football. It is starting to pay dividends in terms of results. The U.S. are the reigning champions of the Cup, and they seem poised to successfully retain it in 2015.
Given their early exit from the Copa America tourney last month, many are prematurely writing off El Tri from having a successful run this year. That would be a mistake. Even with the loss of an injured Javier Hernandez, Mexico will be fielding a different squad for the Cup. Manager Miguel Herrera has selected the players from the 2014 World Cup to compete. After rampaging through their group stage (Cuba, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago), expect El Tri to be playing the United States in the final match. At least, if Mr. Herrera wants to retain the title of manager (and his job).
3) Costa Rica
Being the highest-ranked CONCACAF team in the FIFA rankings (14th) does not guarantee you a spot in the finals, but Costa Rica will breeze through the group stage against opponents like Jamaica, El Salvador and Canada. Los Ticos are managed by football legend Paulo Wanchope, and they reached the quarterfinals last year for the first time. Expect to see them in the semifinals, but that is as far as they will progress. But that is still a great showing for such a small country.
This is a team that had steadily risen in FIFA rankings until last year, finishing second in the 2014 Gold Cup after losing to the United States in the final. Since then, they have dropped to 54th. Lacking an impact player, Los Canales rely on a tenacious defense and opportunistic counter-attacks. This should be enough to advance them beyond the group stage, but they will struggle beyond that point.
While they were eliminated in the group stage of the Copa America tourney, Jamaica played competitive football against some tough CONMEBOL teams, winning over the hearts of some Chileans with their tough defense and competitive spirit.
What they failed to come away with were goals scored, as they were shut out in all three matches. Will the Reggae Boyz show improvement in the Gold Cup? Thanks in part to lesser competition, the short answer is yes. Their group games will be against Costa Rica, Canada and El Salvador. After going head-to-head against some fine South American teams, Jamaica will cruise past the group stage into the quarterfinals. Alas, it is at this point that the Reggae Boyz will be booking their return flights to Kingston.
6) Trinidad and Tobago
The Soca Warriors can be expected to advance beyond the group stage, given the weaker teams in their group. Other than Mexico, the other squads T&T will be matched up against are Guatemala and Cuba. While the Soca Warriors will not advance once they are out of the group stage, it is no small feat that such a small island nation is able to field a credible team given their miniscule pool of players with no soccer league on the islands from which they select talent.
Los Catrachos are likely to advance out of group play, but it will likely be as a third place finisher behind the United States and Panama. Currently FIFA-ranked 75th, almost the entire team plays their club football locally in the Honduran league. Expect Honduras to advance to the quarterfinals before heading back to Tegucigalpa immediately after that match.
8) El Salvador
Playing in Group B against Canada, Costa Rica and Jamaica, if La Selecta keep the matches tight affairs, they stand a good chance of taking one of the two third-place finishes and advancing out of the group stage.
As a whole, they are a young team without veteran leadership. Most of the squad plays in El Salvador with a handful playing in the minor leagues of American soccer. But their speed and tenacity should be enough to see them through beyond the group stage. After that, it is unlikely that La Azul y Blanco will be in the United States for much more than tourism.
Les Grenadiers’ largest problem (aside from their FIFA ranking of 76th) is that they are mired in Group A, along with the United States, Panama and Honduras. They have no impact players to speak of, and virtually all of their starters ply their trade in minor leagues across the world. All of the other teams in their group will advance to the next round, leaving Le Rouge et Bleu booking an early flight back to Port-au-Prince.
While Guatemala will not progress out of the group stage, the good news is that with Cuba in their group, they will not finish in last place. Virtually the entire team plays for local squad Comunicaciones (four other roster players compete for MLS teams in the U.S.). There is some synergy between the players, but not enough to advance Los Chapines beyond group play. When your team captain is nicknamed The Little Fish (Carlos Ruiz), you would do well to book your return flight early enough to save some money.
Oh, Canada. You excel in ice hockey and curling, but this style of football doesn’t seem to be your strong point. The Canucks (yes, The Canucks) are currently FIFA-ranked at 109th. Playing in Group B opposite Costa Rica, El Salvador and Jamaica, you’d think that a country as large as Canada could field a team to get them beyond group play against other CONCACAF teams. Most of the squad is associated with MLS teams in the United States, but a couple of players are “unaffiliated”, meaning that they don’t currently play competitive football. Anywhere. It’s not all bad news for the Canadians, however. The sooner they return home, the sooner they can have a Labatt Blue.
No, the Cubans won’t be advancing out of Group C against Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico. But with relations normalized with the United States, at least the majority of their team won’t defect and ask for asylum here like they did in 2002, 2005, 2007, 2011 and, well, you get the point. The only break in the earlier decade was that the potential defectors were caught by the Cubans in 2003 and Cuba failed to qualify for the Gold Cup in 2009. FIFA ranked at 107th, it is no surprise that all of their players compete for teams in Cuba. While their nickname is El Leones de Caribe, an English translation of Lions of the Caribbean might seem a bit incongruous. They may be leaving early after crashing out of the Gold Cup, but I strongly doubt any player on this team will be in a great rush to leave and return to Cuba.