By Michael Lewis
HARRISON, NJ -- CONCACAF's biennial soccer fest kicks off with a doubleheader at the Rose Bowl on Sunday, July 7, and climaxes at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 28.
Between those two dates, 12 of the confederation's best national teams will vie for the coveted Gold Cup.
The champion of this year's competition will be eligible to play for a spot in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. That winner will play the champ of the 2015 Gold Cup, unless the same country wins both tournaments.
The top two teams in each of the three groups will book a spot in the quarterfinals, as will the two third-place sides that accrue the most points.
No team will play in the same stadium or city twice as each squad will move around. Group A -- Mexico, Panama, Canada and Martinique -- will play at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Wash., and at Sports Authority Field in Denver, Colo.
Group B -- El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago -- will compete at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., and at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas.
And the teams that comprise Group C -- the United States, Costa Rica, Cuba and Belize -- will face off t JELD-WEN Field in Portland, Ore., Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah and Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.
The quarterfinals are set for the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga. on July 20 and M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Md. on July 21.
The four winners will then travel to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas to tussle in the semifinals on July 24 with the survivors battling for CONCACAF glory at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 28.
Here is a quick synopsis of each group:
This group might be the closest thing to the Group of Death.
Though two-time defending Gold Cup champion Mexico has gone through some erratic play during World Cup qualifying and at the Confederations Cup, its fans can still expect a good performance from a squad of players hoping to break into first team reckoning. El Tri boasts some individuals who know how to win international championships -- six members from the 2012 gold-medal winning team at last summer's London Olympics are on the roster. Defenders Israel Jimenez and Darvin Chavez, midfielder Jorge Enriquez and Miguel Ponce and forwards Marco Fabian and Raul Jimenez will be looking for CONCACAF gold this year.
Panama, which has become a force in CONCACAF in recent years, reached the semifinals in 2011, an achievement the Canaleros would love to repeat this time around. Head coach Julio Dely Valdes, a former Panamanian international, has mixed and matched veterans and newcomers on this team. But he hasn't forgotten to deploy two of his most lethal weapons -- midfielder Gabriel Gomez and striker Blas Perez. Those two veterans played vital roles in Panama's stunning 2-1 upset of the United States in the opening round in 2011, the first time the Americans lost on their own soil in the group stage in the history of the Gold Cup. Perez has tallied 10 goals in World Cup Qualifying for Brazil 2014, trailing only Belize's Deon McCaulay on the confederation and international qualifying goal-scoring charts.
With Canada not participating in the CONCACAF hexagonal for World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup is a perfect competition for interim head coach Colin Miller to assess and begin to retool the team for the 2018 qualifying tournament and other competitions. Miller has decided to drop some of the "old guard players" such as 35-year-old midfielder/forward and captain Dwayne De Rosario, Canada's all-time leading goal-scorer (20 goals in 73 international appearances) and give some younger talent some experience in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The only player over 30-years-old on the 23-man roster is midfielder Julian De Guzman, 32, as the rest of the squad is composed of international veterans and players in their younger twenties, who are trying to make an impression. Taking over the captaincy will be 26-year-old midfielder Will Johnson, who has earned 32 caps and scored three goals. Spain’s Benito Floro will assume the coaching reigns on Aug. 1.
Martinique will make its first appearance in the tournament since 2003 and fourth overall, but its Group A rivals must be forewarned not to take this Caribbean side lightly. Les Matinino has proved that it can inflict some damage, tying Canada twice in past competitions and reaching the 2002 quarterfinals. Martinique has nine foreign-based players on its 23-man roster -- goalkeeper Kevin Olimpia (Bordeaux, France); defenders Gregory Arnolin (Sporting Gijon, Spain), Jean-Sylvain Babin (Alcorcon, Spain); Audrick Linord (Stade Olimpique, France) and William Sery (Raon L'Etape, Spain); midfielders Gael Germany (Paris FC, France) and Olivier Thomert (Le Mans, France); plus forwards Yoann Arquin (Notts County, England) and Frederic Piquionne (Portland Timbers, USA).
This might be the best-balanced quartet of the three groups.
Given its reputation and recent accomplishments -- reaching the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 London Summer Olympics -- Honduras must be given proper respect as a team to watch. Head coach Luis Fernando Suarez has decided to rest many of his key players for the important stretch run in the CONCACAF hexagonal, which begins in September. Still the Catrachos should have enough ample firepower to be a force in the group stage with midfielders Marvin Chavez and Andy Najar, as well as forwards Jerry Palacios and Mario Martinez.
El Salvador, which failed to reach the CONCACAF World Cup hexagonal, will bring in a team comprised of veterans and inexperienced players at the international level. Leading the charge for coach Agustín Castillo's side will be midfielder Osael Romero (74 caps, 16 goals), talented striker Rodolfo Zelaya (13 goals in 33 appearances) and fellow forward Rafael Burgos (10 goals in 28 games). The Cuscatlecos will try to duplicate their success in third past Gold Cup competitions, when they qualified for the quarterfinals in 2002, 2003 and 2011.
Trinidad & Tobago is returning to the competition for the first time since 2007. Once a familiar face in the tournament -- the Soca Warriors competed in seven of the first nine Gold Cups -- T&T qualified for the semifinals in 2000. The federation is serious about its team's chances by bringing in former Canada national coach Stephen Hart to push the buttons during the game and former T&T national coach Leo Beenhakker to be director of football. While not as feared as the Soca Warriors' side that booked a place in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Hart and Beenhakker have called in a number of familiar faces, including goalkeepers Jan-Michael Williams and Marvin Phillip, midfielders Densill Theobald (93 caps), Carlos Edwards, Keon Daniel and Chris Birchall, as well as forwards Cornell Glen (23 international goals) and Kenwyne Jones, who plies his trade for Stoke City in England.
Haiti is back at the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time since 2009 (fifth overall). It reached the quarterfinals on two occasions (2002, 2009) and will be looking to do even better in 2013. The Haitians qualified by reaching the Caribbean Cup semifinals as a group winner. They blanked host Antigua & Barbuda in their group final, 1-0, as former Major League Soccer player, striker Jean-Phillippe Peguero (New York Red Bulls, Colorado Rapids, San Jose Earthquakes) scored in the 19th minute. Haiti will return to familiar surroundings, facing Trinidad & Tobago in the first game of a doubleheader at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens on July 12. The Caribbean side played its first eight Gold Cup matches in Miami during the 2000, 2002 and 2007 tournaments.
This group is expected to be dominated by two teams with the other two sides battling out for third place and a possible spot in the quarterfinals.
Many cup observers give the U.S. not only the edge to capture the group crown and, possibly, the tournament. The Americans' roster consists of players with Gold Cup and World Cup experience, including midfielder/forward Landon Donovan; central defender Oguchi Onyewu, who scored a dramatic equalizer against Honduras in the 2005 semifinals; and attacker-turned defender DaMarcus Beasley, who was named captain. Donovan is the Gold Cup’s all-time leading scorer with 13 goals. The U.S. is difficult to beat on its home soil as it is 24-2-1 during opening-round matches. The Americans' lone defeat was a 2-1 setback to Panama in Tampa in 2011.
Costa Rica, which is in second place in the CONCACAF World Cup hexagonal, is entering the competition on a high note. Head coach Jorge Luis Pinto isn't taking anything for granted as he has called in a number of key players, including defender Michael Umaña, midfielder Celso Borges and forwards Jairo Arrieta and Alvaro Saborio. If things fall together, this is a team that could go far in this competition, perhaps even all the way to the final.
Cuba, the 2012 Caribbean Cup champion, will look to snap an 11-game winless streak in the tournament dating back to 2003. Directed by Walter Benitez, the Cubans made history by besting Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0, in extra-time in the Caribbean Cup championship game on Dec. 16. Veteran goalkeeper Odelin Molina, who has enjoyed several memorable cup performances through the years, is expected to make this his final international competition before entering into coaching. He was a rock in the net in the final, finishing the Caribbean tournament with three consecutive shutouts while not surrendering a goal in 374 minutes. Molina has represented Cuba a record 116 times.
Belize will make its Gold Cup debut after finishing in fourth place at the UNCAF Copa Centroamericana. The Belizeans are paced by striker Deon McCaulay, the country's all-time goal-scorer (16 goals) whose 11 goals during qualifying still lead all World Cup goal-scorers. Guided by Ian Mork, Belize s composed of domestic based players, except for goalkeeper Shane Orio (Marathon, Honduras) and Michael Salazar, who performs for the University of California-Riverside.