U.S. likely to meet Mexico in Gold Cup final

March 8, 2007
CarlisleBy Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet
(Archive)

It's almost an article of faith that the CONCACAF Gold Cup is the red-headed stepchild of continental competitions. The competition is weak, the schedule insane, and the frequency with which the tournament is held makes it something less than "must-see TV." Alas, Tuesday's announcement of the draw for this summer's edition did nothing to dispel those notions, and if both Mexico and the United States don't at least make the semifinals, it will be a mammoth upset.

Donovan
WireImage / Donn JonesLandon Donovan is expected to play in the Gold Cup.

Fans will point to Mexico's elimination at the quarterfinal stage of the 2005 Gold Cup, and Panama taking the U.S. to penalties in that year's final, as proof that there are no sure things in this tournament. That is true. An upset is often only a penalty kick shootout away. But it's worth noting that El Tri's ouster two years ago came at the hands of Colombia, and unlike past versions, this year's Gold Cup will be an all-CONCACAF affair, with no guests -- South American or otherwise -- on the invite list. So instead of South Africa and Colombia, the tournament now has El Salvador and Guadeloupe. That only increases the odds that the two regional heavyweights will meet in the final, to be held at Chicago's Soldier Field on June 24.

Of the two favorites, the U.S. has the more difficult path to the final, although that's like saying the walk to the corner grocery is tougher than the one to the local gas station. The Americans have been placed in Group B with Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and El Salvador, and they should have little trouble navigating their way past that contingent. Those countries do have their share of good players, with Guatemalan forward Carlos Ruiz the best known to American fans. But the U.S. is 18-0-1 all-time in group play in the Gold Cup, and has never lost to any of its Group B opponents on home soil.

Mexico's adversaries in Group C -- Honduras, Panama and Cuba -- make for a slightly more difficult trio, given that in 2005, Honduras and Panama made it to the semifinals and final, respectively. But where the Americans' path becomes tougher is in their likely semifinal opponent, Costa Rica. The Ticos have historically given the U.S. all it could handle, both in the Gold Cup and in World Cup qualifying, and you can bet they'll be looking to prove that CONCACAF's power base is a triad rather than a twosome. Of course, that assumes that form holds in Group A, where Costa Rica will have to get past Canada, Haiti and Guadeloupe.

Since that seems a safe assumption, it puts a premium on the U.S. taking care of business in its group. Should the Americans slip up and finish second, they might find themselves facing Costa Rica in the quarterfinals instead of the semis.

But until that round, the U.S. will have to be content with overcoming other obstacles, namely the quick turnaround between matches, and coping with the pressure of being one of the favorites.

The Americans will play their three group games in a span of just six days, with a scant 42 hours separating the conclusion of their opener against Guatemala on June 7 and the beginning of their second match against Trinidad and Tobago. While CONCACAF will blame the compressed schedule on such items as television and the restrictions of the FIFA international calendar, it doesn't make it any easier on the players.

"Three games in six days is tough," U.S. defender Jimmy Conrad said during Tuesday's conference call. "Some guys are probably not going to be too happy about it. At the same time, there are going to be opportunities for guys to prove themselves, to earn the trust of [head coach Bob Bradley] and the coaching staff."

While giving every member of the roster an opportunity to play is a plus, the downside is that it will make cohesion on the field more difficult, especially in attack. But given that fitness and depth are areas where the U.S. usually has an edge, this lack of sharpness shouldn't become an issue until the knockout rounds. For that reason, the Americans' role as one of the favorites could be the bigger obstacle to overcome, although it's one that Conrad welcomes.

"I think it's nice to be a favorite every once in a while, and to deal with that pressure," Conrad said. "People expect us to win this tournament, and that's a nice role change for us. And it's another challenge that if U.S. soccer wants to get over that hump of proving that we're one of the best year in and year out, then this is the kind of event that we need to do that in."

It's a label that the U.S. hasn't looked comfortable wearing over the years, especially when teams have bunkered in against them. The Americans' Gold Cup triumph in 2005 was as notable for their struggles against the likes of Cuba and Panama as it was for the victory itself. That's why as important as results are, how the U.S. plays will take on a bit more significance. The sight of the Americans' attack struggling at the World Cup is one that is still fresh in everyone's mind, and while the competition in the Gold Cup pales in comparison, the U.S.'s ability to break down CONCACAF teams is one step toward developing a more varied attack.

If the U.S. can achieve that goal, then a spot in the latter rounds of the tournament awaits. And if the Americans find archrival Mexico on the other side of the field, then the articles of faith will remain intact.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.