U.S. should have enough arsenal to get past Panama
The group phase of this year's Gold Cup saw the underdogs have their day on several occasions. There was Canada taking top honors in Group A, while Honduras shocked Mexico to claim first place in Group C. There was also the surprising performance of Gold Cup debutantes Guadeloupe, which progressed to the quarterfinals by claiming one of the third-place slots. Only the United States, which went 3-for-3 and didn't concede a goal, could make the argument that it fulfilled its role as top dogs. Yet with the knockout stages now upon us, some wounded favorites will get a chance to rehabilitate their sullied reputations.
There are some compelling reasons to bet on the revival of a team like Mexico. It's at this point that the fixture congestion, a staple of the Gold Cup, begins to test a team's depth. This favors a deep team like El Tri. Suspensions have also begun to take their toll. Just ask a team like Panama, which will be without three starters for its match on Saturday against the U.S. With that in mind, here's a breakdown of each quarterfinal matchup:
Canada vs. Guatemala
This match should be slugged out in midfield, with the physical tactics of Guatemala trying to blunt the creativity of Canadians Julian de Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario. Keep an eye on De Rosario, whose temper has been known to get the better of him when MLS sides have resorted to the rough stuff.
The Chapines will be without midfield pit bull Leonel Noriega, who picked up his second yellow card in the group finale against Trinidad and Tobago. And while Guatemala seem to produce steely players like Noriega at will, the extent to which likely replacement Luis Swisher will pick up the slack is an open question.
Canada's defense has looked shaky at times during the tournament -- although Guatemala's offense hasn't set the world alight, either. The Canadian central duo of Andrew Hainault and Richard Hastings will need to cope with Carlos Ruiz's usual repertoire of antics. But with the Chapines offering few other threats outside midfielders Jose Contreras and Marvin Avila, Canada should be able to cope with Guatemala's offense. Look for Canada's quality in attack to carry the day in a tight affair, although a penalty kick shootout is a distinct possibility.
United States vs. Panama
Panama is one of the few teams in CONCACAF that can compete athletically with the Americans, and they came within a penalty kick shootout of beating the U.S. in the 2005 Gold Cup final. Yet the loss of midfielder Rolando Escobar, as well as defenders Roman Torres and Gabriel Gomez to suspension, appears to be too big an obstacle for the Canaleros to overcome.
The Panamanian strike force of Blas Perez and Jose Luis Garcés should pose plenty of problems for a U.S. defense that has had its share of nervous moments. But the inclusion of Pablo Mastroeni should anchor the midfield, and help starve the Panamanian front line of service.
Panama began its match against Mexico by applying pressure all over the field, but given the state of its backline, the team might opt to let the defense find rhythm before applying that tactic. Regardless, with the likes of Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan all in good form, the U.S. should have enough quality in attack to get past Panama.
Mexico vs. Costa Rica
This matchup pits two underachieving teams against each other, with one of them set to endure even more disappointment. But as much as U.S. fans would like Mexico to be that team, I don't see it happening for the simple reason that Costa Rica's midfield lynchpin, Walter Centeno, is suspended for the match. El Tri will be missing the likes of Nery Castillo, Kikin Fonseca and Pavel Pardo for the same reason, but none of those players do as much for Mexico as Centeno does for the Ticos.
The Saprissa midfielder has scored all three of Costa Rica's goals in the tournament, with his team often relying on his lethal free kicks to generate offense -- especially when the attack is struggling from open play. In his absence, Costa Rica will count on the aging Rolando Fonseca to pick up the slack, and so far in this tournament the Alajuela midfielder has looked nothing like the player who used to torment the United States on a regular basis. They will also need to get more from target forward Alvaro Saborio, who was barely heard from in the final group match against Guadeloupe.
Mexico's attack has looked out of sorts as well, but it will welcome back from suspension volatile forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who, when playing well, can conjure up the kind of magic that can win a game. Winger Andres Guardado is another player to watch, especially since his speed seems tailor-made to exploit the Ticos' three-back alignment.
Honduras vs. Guadeloupe
At first glance, this game has all the makings of a blowout. Guadeloupe looked spent in its last group match against Costa Rica, and in Carlos Costly and Carlos Pavón, Honduras easily has the hottest strike force in the tournament. Yet Guadeloupe has been competitive in every match with inspirational captain Jocelyn Angloma rested and available. Guadeloupe is more than capable of pulling an upset, especially if goalkeeper Franck Grandel continues his solid play.
However, with Amado Guevara feeding the likes of Costly and Pavón, Honduras simply has too much in attack while Guadeloupe doesn't have enough. It took wonder goals from Angloma and David Fleurival to defeat Canada 2-1, and with the Catrachos on a roll, it will take more of the same for Guadeloupe to stay in the tournament.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.