The Gold Cup kicks off on Sunday evening with Canada taking on Martinique on Pasadena, California. It will be the 12th edition of CONCACAF's regional championship. The prize for the winner, a big ugly trophy and a place in a playoff against the 2015 champion for the place in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
Historically it is an event that has been dominated by a pair of countries. Mexico have won 6 of the 11 previous titles while finishing runner-up once. The United States have 4 titles to go along with 4 second place finishes. The only other country to claim the top spot in the event? Well, that would be our own beloved Canada when they shocked the field in 2000.
So the question heading in to this years event is whether someone can be the next Canada and break up the dominance of CONCACAF's big two. There certainly are some potential Cinderella's to choose from so before you settle in to watch the event get to know the teams involved.
Group A (Canada, Martinique, Mexico, Panama):
Right off the top Mexico should be considered as favorites to move on from this group despite leaving a lot of their top players off the roster since they are busy competing in the Hex. They are not without questions marks though as José Manuel de la Torre's team have not been firing on all cylinders of late. They crashed out of the Confederations Cup with just 3 points from their 3 matches and have only collected 8 points in their first 6 matches of the Hex with just a single win.
Mexico will be hoping that the 'B team' brings a different dynamic than the first team that has been struggling. They are fielding an entirely domestic squad for the event with limited international experience but that does not leave them without talent. The likes of Javier Orozco, Raúl Jiménez, and Rafael Márquez Lugo give them plenty of young talent in the attack so if they can get clicking there is no reason they shouldn't claim top spot in this group.
Panama come in as the group's second strongest side by some distance. Like Mexico, they are currently busy with competing in the Hex where they have 6 points from 6 matches and currently find themselves sitting outside of the World Cup qualification position. With the team chasing their first World Cup berth a few notable names have been left off the roster with Felipe Baloy among the biggest absentees. They still have plenty of talent and experience around the squad though with Blas Pérez, Gabriel Gómez, Román Torres, and Jaime Penedo making up the spine of the team. There is a lot of young talent around them though and for Panama to do more than get out of the group they will need the likes of Rolando Blackburn to set up and provide that needed secondary scoring.
Canada should have enough to claim a third place finish but the question will be if they can do enough to make it to the quarterfinals as one of the top third place finishers. Their squad can't get much younger and even though they have some quality in the defence and midfield the big question will be who is going to put the ball in the back of the net. The scary fact is that Simeon Jackson is the top scorer on the roster with only 6 goals in his career. Canada should play everyone in the group tough but without scoring it will be hard to get the needed results. That opener against Martinique will basically decide their future in this competition because without three points there it will be an uphill battle to get out of the group.
Martinique round out this group and are a bit of an unknown coming into the Gold Cup. This is the biggest competition they are eligible since they are not a FIFA nation and it is the first time in a decade that they have qualified for the Gold Cup so it is hard to know what to expect from them. They do have Frédéric Piquionne who plays for the Timbers and Kévin Parsemain who has 20 international goals so they might surprise some people.
Prediction: Mexico-9, Panama-4, Canada-2, Martinique-1
Group B: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago
This group should end up being a battle for second spot with Honduras the clear favourites to come away with first place. Honduras are another team busy competing in the Hex and have collected 7 points from the first 6 matches. Like the other teams in the Hex they have left a number of big name players off the roster and opted for a much less experienced group. Out are the likes of Roger Espinoza and Jerry Bengston but they do have Jerry Palacios, Andy Najar, Mario Martínez, and Marvin Chávez which should be enough to get out of this group.
It is fairly open behind them with El Salvador arguably the next strongest side. They showed decently in their World Cup qualifying group last year but ended up finishing third to Mexico and Costa Rica in a tough group. Their key player should be Jaime Alas as the 23-year-old Rosenborg player already has 33 caps to his name. The entire roster is made up of players in their 20's with the exception of goalkeeper Dagoberto Portillo. They combine that youth with some decent international experience and if they can find some scoring from Osael Romero and Rodolfo Zelaya they have a real chance of getting out of the group.
Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago will both struggle to have a major impact on this event but either one of them could do enough to claim a spot in the quarterfinals as a best third place finisher. Haiti have done some impressive things in friendlies of late including a 2-1 loss against Spain and a 2-2 draw with Italy. If some of that carries over to this event then they might be able to grab enough points to move on. If that is going to happen they will rely on Peguero Jean Philippe to continue his goal scoring ways and add to his 21 goals in 26 caps.
Trinidad and Tobago are in a bit of a rebuild right now and have just brought in a new head coach. That new coach is Stephen Hart who is making the return to his native country as 25 years in Canada. T&T are back in the Gold Cup after missing the last past to editions. There team has a mix of players from the domestic league along with representation from all around the globe. The big names on the roster Kenwyne Jones from Stoke City and Justin Hoyte from Middlesborough. They also have regular Toronto FC trialist Joevin Jones. It is a squad that could advance but the domestic based players will need to step up to get that job done.
Prediction: Honduras-7, El Salvador-5, Haiti-4, Trinidad and Tobago-0
Group C: Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, United States
Costa Rica and the United States should both be able to cruise through this group while Belize and Cuba will likely be more focused on damage limitation. This group gives you the two teams currently sitting at the top of the Hex up against two of the weaker teams in the event so some lopsided score-lines are not unlikely.
The United States have the advantage of playing on home soil which should be enough to push them to top spot even without many of their top players. The return of Landon Donovan will take most of the headlines heading into the matches but the US will need to find some others to help him carry the scoring load. Their forward group does not include a whole lot of proven international goal scorers but there is plenty of talent between Herculez Gomez, Will Bruin, Jack McInerney, and Chris Wondolowski so it shouldn't be that big of an issue. They should out of the group with ease which would allow Jurgen Klinsmann to bring in some reinforcements if he choses.
Costa Rica have left Bryan Ruiz at home for this event but brought more of their A team than most of the other countries involved in the Hex. With Álvaro Saborío, Jairo Arrieta, Rodney Wallace, and Roy Miller they have a strong MLS connection. They have the attacking power to get the job done but a lack of experience in goal could prove costly against the stronger teams in the event.
Belize and Cuba will be battling just not to get crushed in this group. Cuba continues to improve as they have reached 6 out of the last 7 Gold Cups but they still have a fair ways to go before they are considered to be among the contenders. With their whole roster having to play domestically it limits their development options but they still have some talent if they can avoid the fear of players disappearing while on US soil. Cuba can be a tricky opponent to break down but their roster lacks any real goal scoring threat making it unlikely that they will stun either of the top teams in this group.
Belize are in a similar boat with most of their players competing in their domestic league. This is their first Gold Cup appearance and it is likely going to be a tough learning experience for the small nation. Just getting here was an accomplishment for Belize though as it took quite a bit of effort to raise the funds needs to send the team to the event. Belize will likely rely on their four players who play in Honduras to provide that needed bit of quality but getting a single result might be asking a bit too much.
Prediction: United States-7, Costa Rica-7, Cuba-3, Belize-0
The normal contenders are still there and looking strong heading into the event and it would not be a surprise to see Mexico and the United States once again meeting in the final on July 28th at Soldier Field in Chicago. The likes of Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama are all in position to pull off an upset though should the chance arise. Anyone else would have to be considered a longshot but any Canadian fan the remembers 2000 knows that all it takes is a bit of luck and a run of form at the right time will tell you that anything can happen.
Hopefully, for the sake of excitement anything does happen and fans are treated to some different than just another round of the US and Mexico dominating on their way to an inevitable meeting in the finals. With their weakened squads anything is possible so fans might jut get treated to an exciting Gold Cup this month.
Prediction: Mexico-1st, Honduras-2nd, United States-3rd, Panama-4th