Five storylines to follow as the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off Sunday:
1. What's the big deal? It may seem like too much hullabaloo for a tournament that gets precious little mainstream media mention, but there is a pretty sweet carrot at the end of this stick. To the winner goes a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil. Theoretically, claiming one of the eight spots for the tournament that precedes World Cup 2014 provides a big edge as participants gain greater knowledge of the country, facilities, etc. How much a place in the 2009 Confederations Cup ultimately assisted the United States a year later in South Africa is up for debate -- but it's safe to say that sure didn't hurt. Plus, it will make for a more interesting summer in 2013 around here, if nothing else. So, there's that.
2. All signs point to a U.S.-Mexico final. The bookmakers believe so, installing the bitter border rivals as tourney co-favorites. And the brackets are certainly arranged to provide the best chance. If the U.S. and Mexico finish atop their four-team groups (and they certainly should) then the Rose Bowl on June 25 is the place to be. The big boys from CONCACAF have met 15 times since 2000, with the United States owning a commanding 9-4-2 record in that time. They haven't met, however, since August of 2009, when the United States fell in Mexico City.
3. Who is this year's dark horse? Honduras or Costa Rica could have something to say about matters, as could Canada. Even little Guadeloupe, full of capable French players, shouldn't be totally discounted. But go with Jamaica. This looks like Jamaica's most talented team since the Reggae Boyz qualified for their one and only World Cup, France '98. The current coach, Theodore Whitmore, was a key player on that side. Now he says his team, one that has benefitted greatly from its placements in Major League Soccer, is 100 percent focused on Gold Cup glory.
4. It might be Chicharito's time. Young Manchester United striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez can score at a very high level. He removed any lingering doubt in his first Old Trafford campaign, striking 20 times in all competitions for the fabled side. He just turned 23 years old but has already found goal in a World Cup, hitting net twice last year in South Africa for El Tri. So, is he ready to rise even further and truly make it his team? Chicharito may not quite belong alongside Mexican heroes like Rafa Marquez, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and others. He most certainly hasn't approached Hugo Sanchez territory just yet. Still, he's climbing the ladder fast.
5. Will we be impressed by Bob Bradley's U.S. team? The U.S. camp has said all along that Gold Cup is a high priority, mostly because of that Confederation Cup's berth. As veteran defender Steve Cherundolo said Friday, "The Confederations Cup is a big tournament, and the only way to get there is to win the Gold Cup." So the heat is on. But if we're being honest, the U.S. side needs to find the next gear; recent friendlies haven't been much to talk about. In fairness, some of the opposition over the last few months has been downright fierce, the likes of Argentina, Brazil and (on Saturday) World Cup champion Spain. But there have also been some middleweights thrown in there, like Paraguay and Chile. Bradley's side is just 1-2-4 since South Africa. Considering that six of those seven were on home soil, that's not good enough.
Costa Rica: The Ticos are the perennial pursuers, the nation that frequently gets close but can't seem to "get there." They fell to Uruguay in a playoff for a spot in South Africa last summer. Twice before that they did arrive at a World Cup but couldn't quite squeeze into the second round. Two years ago in the Gold Cup, Costa Rica fell to Mexico in a semifinal shootout. Going further back, to 2002, they made it all the way to the final but fell there to the United States. These days, the attack runs through versatile attacker Bryan Ruiz, who just played a big role in FC Twente's second-place finish in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Cuba: Always the mystery team, precious little is typically known about the players or about overall team quality due to Cuba's closed society. Based on results in friendlies this year, don't expect too much. El Salvador recorded a 1-0 win over Cuba in Havana back in March (the first time El Salvador had played in Cuba since 1967.) Lightly regarded Panama came into Havana a few days later and walked away with a 2-0 victory. The Cubans were competitive, at least, in their last Gold Cup back in 2007; they lost to Mexico by only a goal and drew with Panama before closing with a 5-0 loss to Honduras that was shrouded in intrigue and distraction due to a pair of pregame defections. One of the defectors has turned into a terrific MLS player for Seattle: feisty holding midfielder Osvaldo Alonso.
El Salvador: Manager Ruben Israel, a 55-year-old Uruguayan, was introduced in April as the next man to steer El Salvador's "Los Cuscatlecos." Israel will lean on two Americans, attacker Arturo Alvarez and defender Steve Purdy, MLS players who grew up in the U.S. but have Salvadoran citizenship. For scoring, they'll look to Rodolfo Zelaya, who led El Salvador's humble domestic league in the most recent campaign. Israel declined, however, to select defender Marcelo Messias, a naturalized Brazilian who played in two recent friendlies, a 1-0 win in Cuba and 3-2 loss at home to Jamaica.
Mexico: With Hernandez still resting from his long club season, Giovani dos Santos took charge Thursday as the Mexicans prepped for their Gold Cup trophy defense with a 3-0 win over New Zealand in Denver. The selections by coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre included eight players from European sides and four from Monterrey, which just claimed the CONCACAF Champions League crown. Most of the big stars are present -- Hernandez, dos Santos, Marquez and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa specifically -- but not all the big names made it. Controversially, de la Torre declined to bring forward Carlos Vela, who belongs to Arsenal but played for West Brom last year. Pachuca defender Paul Aguilar was another prominent omission. The Mexicans are looking for their second consecutive Gold Cup title and sixth in 11 tournaments overall.
Grenada: It was surely a devastating blow for the tournament's smallest nation to see New England Revolution midfield dynamo Shalrie Joseph pull out the competition, preferring instead to remain with the New England Revolution. Carolina Railhawks forward Kithson Bain, who led Grenada with five goals during the recent Caribbean Cup, also had to bow out due to a quadriceps injury. The Spice Boys are participating in their second Gold Cup -- but certainly are hopeful of a better display than their 2009 debut, when they lost all three group stage games by a combined 10-0 score. Former assistant Mike Adams was recently named coach. Curiously, that came after the tiny island nation helped eliminate Trinidad and Martinique from the Gold Cup finals during a Caribbean qualifying tournament.
Guatemala: Soccer in this Central American nation reached new heights in 2006 when the nation climbed to an alltime high 50th in FIFA's world rankings. But Los Chapines have fallen steadily since (and now rank 124th, just one spot ahead of European whipping boy Luxembourg). Guatemala barely elbowed its way into this year's Gold Cup, earning the fifth (and last) berth from the Copa Centroamerica with a 2-1 victory over Nicaragua. Recent friendlies don't portend well. Los Chapines struggled against Venezuela earlier this week in Guatemala City, a 2-0 loss for the home side. That came just days after a 1-1 draw with Bolivia in Guatemala. If the Guatemalans have any chance, they'll need big stuff from Chicago Fire attacker Marco Pappa.
Honduras: This is easily the tournament's least predictable side. Honduras is fresh off its first World Cup appearance, a high point of soccer for this economically challenged Central American land. Last January, Los Catrachos captured the Central American championships for the first time since 1995. So, is this a team on the rise? Perhaps. But Honduras can't seem to escape upheaval, having gone through three coaching changes in a year. And it lost three friendlies in a row this spring after claiming that Central American title. The Hondurans will be without important defender Maynor Figueroa; EPL side Wigan requested his release due to mental and physical fatigue, according to Catrachos coach Luis Fernando Suarez. It does have a bona fide star in Celtic left back Emilio Izaguirre, the Scottish Premier League player of the year.
Jamaica: A well-regarded Jamaican side will look fairly familiar to Major League Soccer fans, with eight selections off MLS rosters. Red Bulls winger Dane Richards heads the list, which also includes burly San Jose Earthquakes forward Ryan Johnson and Houston Dynamo center back Jermaine Taylor. (High-scoring, speedy Colorado Rapids forward Omar Cummings was named to the roster but has apparently lost his fitness battle with an ankle sprain). The rest of the side is dotted with players from Scandinavian leagues and England's lower tiers. Look for the team, which allowed just two goals in Gold Cup group play two years ago, to emerge from this foursome.
Canada: The Canadian Soccer Association has made a point recently to bulk up its senior national team, which has become something of a chronic underachiever. The talent seems to be there presently, especially in the midfield and at forward. Coach Stephan Hart has Dwayne De Rosario (New York Red Bulls), Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake), Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC), Simeon Jackson (England's Norwich City) and Atiba Hutchinson (Holland's PSV Eindhoven) to choose from in midfield alone. The defense isn't quite as strong, which may help explain a series of underwhelming results in recent friendlies, like losses to Greece and Peru and a disappointing draw last week in Toronto against Ecuador. The injury absence of Borussia Moenchengladbach veteran defender Paul Stalteri won't help a bit, either.
Guadeloupe: The tiny country (pop. 400,000) in the Lesser Antilles is an overseas department of France, and therefore not a FIFA member and ineligible for World Cups or any FIFA competition. But as a member of CONCACAF, the nation's soccer team is eligible for Gold Cup play. In fact, this is always Guadeloupe's big moment. The became the tournament darlings in 2007, motoring all the way to the semifinals (and only losing then to Mexico, 1-0). Two years ago they defeated Panama and Nicaragua in group stage but fell to Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. The roster, captained by Sporting Kansas City's Stephane Auvrey, is a mishmash from French Ligue 1 and Europe's lesser tiers.
Panama: For a small nation with an undistinguished resume in world soccer, the Red Storm hasn't done too badly in regional play. The Panamanians qualified for their fourth consecutive Gold Cup by finishing fourth earlier this year at the Copa Centroamericana, beating El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize (all by 2-0 margins) before falling in a semifinal penalty shootout to Costa Rica. If you put any stock in FIFA rankings, coach Julio Dely Valdes' team currently sits 67th, one spot ahead of Scotland. The roster is stocked with players from leagues in Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru, France, Poland and Spain. Defense, led by veteran Luis Alfonso Henríquez, who plays for Poland's Lech Poznan, is definitely Panama's strength.
United States: The challenge for coach Bob Bradley is to keep an eye on the Gold Cup prize, but still begin handing off more responsibility to a younger generation of players who will be needed during the coming World Cup cycle. As much as trusted old hands like Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and others still mean to the program, there are fresh faces to study as well. Right back Eric Lichaj has shown promise aplenty, for instance. Same for the pair of youngsters from the New York Red Bulls, Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream, both of whom are getting their first tests in matches that truly matter. Elsewhere, this is not an opportunity to be missed for certain individuals, who may not get many chances if they fall flat here. Striker Chris Wondolowski certainly falls into that category. Same for Freddy Adu -- in a big way, in fact.