FOX Soccer Exclusive
Underdogs seek to spoil party
The decision by Mexico and the United States to leave their best players at home for the Gold Cup leaves the door open for an unexpected contender to supplant the CONCACAF heavyweights at the top of the region. It is not an opportunity those aspiring nations can afford to squander.
Interlopers generally possess a poor record in this competition. The twin powers have contested each of the past three finals and have won 10 of the available 11 titles since the tournament's inception. Canada prevented a clean sweep when it cobbled together a magical run to claim the title in 2000. All of the other familiar Hexagonal contenders – Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama – have mustered three combined appearances in the final.
All four of those countries and the remaining six entrants in this edition of the continental championship will hope to break the duopoly. They must overcome their previous failures in this competition and rely on a mix of fresh faces and regulars to fuel their push for glory in Chicago at the end of July.
Costa Rica probably enters the tournament in the strongest position of the chasing pack. Jorge Luis Pinto named a strong squad with many of his usual starters, though European-based stars Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz will miss out. Pinto has molded a diligent, effective unit during the first six matches of the Hexagonal. If his players can provide the always lethal Álvaro Saborío with the necessary service in Ruiz's stead, then this savvy group can mount a genuine push for its first title.
Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto hopes to spring a surprise at the Gold Cup (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images).
Honduras boasts perhaps the easiest of the three group assignments, but it must cope without most of its familiar faces after coach Luis Fernando Suárez named an experimental side for the tournament. The onus now shifts onto the chosen regulars – Marvin Chávez, Osman Chávez, Jorge Claros and Mario Martínez – to carry this squad deep into the knockout round. Suarez will pay especially close attention to the performances of Roger Rojas and Jerry Palacios up front with Jerry Bengtson currently estranged from the national team.
Julio Dely Valdes faces no such concerns in his camp at the moment, but the Panama coach must also chart a course through the group stage without captain Felipe Baloy and a handful of other familiar faces. Baloy's absence – though he is available for selection as one of the four roster changes at Dely Valdes' disposal prior to the knockout round – places additional pressure on the generally organized defensive shape. Blas Pérez's presence up front at least provides an outlet for the World Cup hopefuls to play directly if they are unable to transition quickly through midfield.
Canada grapples with wider concerns as interim coach Colin Miller guides his inexperienced squad into these proceedings. Miller omitted veteran figures Dwayne De Rosario, Atiba Hutchinson (overlooked due to his contractual status) and Patrice Bernier from his 23-man roster to focus on developing younger players for the next World Cup cycle. Recently appointed captain Will Johnson will scurry about to fill the gaps as much as he can, but the in-form Portland midfielder can only do so much to cover for the potential issues for a side trying to build for the future.
The six remaining sides – and perhaps even the Canadians – must apply themselves earnestly to secure one of the available quarterfinal berths. Former West Ham striker Frédéric Piquionne will lead Martinique's efforts to emerge from a difficult Group A slate against Canada, Mexico and Panama. El Salvador (led by promising Rosenborg midfielder Jaime Alas), Haiti (reinforced by Sporting Kansas City duo Mechack Jerome and Peterson Joseph) and Trinidad and Tobago (under the auspices of former Canada coach Stephen Hart) will jostle with Honduras for the two guaranteed tickets out of Group B. Belize (in its first trip into this competition with top scorer Deon McCaulay serving as the touchstone) and Cuba (once again entirely reliant on domestic-based players) will try to squeeze out one of the two available third-place berths by procuring results against Costa Rica and the United States in Group C.
For each of these nations, the first hurdle involves finding a way out of the group stage. Only then can the focus turn toward marching into the latter stages of the tournament. Past precedent suggests the journey might end a bit sooner than desired, but the prospect of embarking upon it once more – and this time against weakened American and Mexican sides – provides hope that this summer could end differently.