By the time all is said and done, it will have been a pretty busy week f or American soccer. Barely 48 hours after the United States women’s team toppled Japan for its third Women’s World Cup title last Sunday, the U.S. men defeated Honduras 2-1 in their first match of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Gold Cup is North America’s most prestigious soccer championship, and the American men are looking to make up ground in the eternal war on the pitch between the Stars and Stripes and Mexico. (Mexico has won six Gold Cups; the US has won five.)
Twelve teams are competing for the cup. The United States, Mexico, and Canada qualify automatically, while the rest came from qualifying tournaments in Central America and the Caribbean.
Here is group-by-group breakdown of the teams of the Copa de Oro (Spanish for Gold Cup), which the United States is hosting.
Group A is probably the proverbial Group of Death. The United States is definitely the favorite. The Yanks are 5-2-1 so far in 2015, with wins over the Netherlands and Germany. MLS goals leader Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes) is there, alongside World Cup stars Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders) and Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC). Honduras has fallen all the way to 75th in the world rankings after qualifying for the World Cup last year. They had to beat French Guiana in a playoff just to be the 12th and final Gold Cup qualifier. But Los Catrachos (The Hondurans) showed reserve in recent draws against Mexico and Paraguay. They finished fourth in each of the last two Cups and should be hungry… Panama should be a tough out, as Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) were the runners-up in the 2013 tournament. They have struggled so far this year, though. Players to watch include Luis Tejada, a seasoned veteran who was named MVP of the 2005 Gold Cup, and MLS’ Gabriel Torres (Colorado Rapids), who had five goals in the 2013 Gold Cup… Haiti has never finished higher than seventh in the Gold Cup, but they could be a sleeper. Young gun Kervens Belfort (who plays for Ethnikos Achna in Cyprus) has the most international goals of anyone on the team, while defender Jean-Jacques Pierre (Angers, France) has the most experience.
Group B is the most intriguing group, with four teams who are all viable contenders. Costa Rica is the highest ranked team in the tournament (14th in the world) and should be a favorite to be the first Central American team to win the tournament since 1989. La Sele (The Selected)reached the quarterfinals of last year’s World Cup, keyed by reliable forward Bryan Ruiz (Sporting CP, Portugal) and young star Joel Campbell (Arsenal, England)… El Salvador is one of Central America’s most consistently good teams, but it’s unlikely to make noise in this tournament. La Selecta’s (also the Selected) key players will likely be Copa Centroamericana (the Central American Cup) star Rafael Burgos (Fredrikstad, Norway) and youngster Arturo Alvarez (Videoton, Hungary)… Caribbean Cup champion Jamaica played in the recent Copa America and fell flat, being outscored 3-0 in losses to South American powers Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. But Jamaica still is looking like a favorite to advance to the knockout stage. They possess a reliable, veteran triumvirate in defender Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), midfielder Rodolph Austin (Leeds United, England), and defender Demar Philips (Real Salt Lake)… Finally, there’s Canada, the only team other than the U.S. or Mexico to win the Gold Cup in 2000s. The Canadians are the lowest-ranked team in the group, but they’re on a four-game winning streak. That streak is inflated, though, by three wins over minnows Puerto Rico and Dominica. Canada hasn’t had a quality victory since a friendly against Jamaica last September. Canada no longer possess the great Dwayne de Rosario, who has retired, but the team still has several potential weapons, including Julian de Guzman, the first Canadian to play in Spain’s top league.
Mexico will likely run away with this group, the Cup’s weakest. Last year Mexico enjoyed its sixth straight trip to the World Cup’s knockout round, and recently held its own in Copa America, earning a tie with host Chile. But El Tri’s second all-time leading scorer, Javier Hernandez (Manchester United), is out for the tournament with an injury. Expect forwards such as Oribe Peralta (Club America, Mexico) and Giovani dos Santos (Villarreal, Spain), as well as the experienced Andres Guardado (PSV, Netherlands), to pick up the slack and carry El Tri… Guatemala, who we last saw being walloped 4-0 by the US in a warm-up game in Nashville, wields two potential game-changers: 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz (Municipal, Guatemala), far and away the greatest player in La Azul y Blanco’s (The Blue and White) history, and Marco Pappa (Seattle Sounders), who won both the Golden Ball and Boot in the Copa Centroamericana… Trinidad and Tobago, who once upon a time won six of seven Caribbean Cups between 1994 and 2001, has fallen to 67th in the world, but represent Mexico’s biggest challenge. The Soca Warriors are filled with veterans like Kenwyne Jones (Bournemouth, England), Khaleem Hyland (Racing Genk, Belgium), and Joevin Jones (Chicago Fire)… Cuba seems likely to bring up the rear, but should not be counted out. The secretive nature of Cuba’s government make their team hard to forecast, but Yenier Marquez (FC Villa Clara, Cuba), a national team fixture since 2000, seems likely to be a key player.
It’s the U.S. and Mexico’s cup to lose. We are experiencing the golden age of American soccer, as the Yanks are coming off of what nearly was a trip to the World Cup quarterfinals. Yet Mexico — with its lethal weapons at every position, its history, and its leg up in their rivalry with the U.S. — simply has too much talent not to be labeled the favorite in this edition of the Gold Cup.
Semifinals: United States (Group A winner) over Costa Rica; Mexico (Group C winner) over Jamaica (Group B winner)
Final: Mexico over United States
Photos: Andrew A. Nelles/AP (Mexico), Tom Pennington/Getty Images (US), Stephen Dunn/Getty Images (Costa Rica), Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images (Mexico)