You'll doubtless recall that I am a rabid Canadian national team fan. Long before I heard the siren song of the Vancouver Whitecaps, I was cheering on my boys in red as they lost games on a regular basis to countries with GDPs lower than my pocket change. I was there when Trinidad and Tobago gave us a classic Jack Warnering at Commonwealth Stadium. I was there when Honduras turned our World Cup campaign into dust at Stade Saputo while the ex-pats danced and sang. I was there in 2009 when Canada improbably strung some wins together and almost harnessed the spirit of 2000 before Honduras and CONCACAF refereeing again ripped their hearts out.
On Sunday, the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicked off. It's one of my favourite competitions in any sport because it's a competition in which Canada traditionally does well. We all remember the 2000 victory, of course, but there was also the 2007 tournament where Canada rolled to the semi-final and had a berth in the championship game stolen by Benito Archundia's caprice. In 2003 Canada beat Costa Rica (a rare treat!) but got jobbed by goal differential and a rotten group format. In 1998 Canada actually withdrew before the tournament, but that was so long ago that it might as well have not happened.
Today, Canada kicks off their tournament against a little team from down south, so the time is right to preview the tournament. Very long-time readers will recall that, in 2009, I previewed Canada's group in the tournament, where I successfully predicted that we'd beat Jamaica and El Salvador then promptly blew everything else. This time, I've decided to be a little more ambitious and say a bit about every team in the tournament in my own way.
Team That's Probably Going to Win: Mexico. Durr. When you're the quickest, strongest, deepest, and best, you have reasonably good odds in a tournament like this. They more or less did as they pleased with El Salvador in their first match. This is their tournament to lose, truly and genuinely, and the Mexican supporters should be upset with anything short of an undefeated stroll to the championship. They might have some trouble with a couple of teams but nothing that should actually defeat them: barring a meltdown (always a possibility) I'm predicting a romp for el Tri.
Team That's Second-Best, But Not By As Much As You Think: the United States. I'm not souring on them because of that 4-0 friendly loss to Spain: Spain beats lots of teams. But the Spaniards were more-or-less scrimmaging in the second half and could have run the score up to a touchdown if they'd wanted to. Meanwhile, the Americans are under pressure: Bob Bradley was getting heat from American supporters for his roster selection long before the friendly was played. The team relies heavily on offense from players like Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, Freddy Adu, and Chris Wondolowski: guys with a lot to prove at this level (in the case of Agudelo and Adu, guys with a lot to prove at any level). The defense is questionable at best, relative to the usual American standard, and Bradley may rue his decision to leave Jay DeMerit out of the squad. Landon Donovan, of course, may be the great gamebreaker for the Americans, but he's just one man, fighting illness and with a surprising number of miles on his odometer.
This isn't meant to write off the Americans. There's too much talent to place them behind any non-Mexican team in this tournament. They're ahead of the likes of Canada and Costa Rica, but are they that much ahead? If it's the United States and Honduras in a Houston semi-final, with a ferociously pro-Honduran crowd at Reliant Stadium, are you really that sure they're going to get a result? If the game's tied after seventy minutes and the Hondurans are pressing, how many players on that team other than Donovan, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey do you really trust to rise to the occasion?
They're second-best. But they're not as far ahead of the pack as any of their fans will be comfortable with.
The Pack: Canada, Costa Rica, and Honduras. If anybody other than the Big Two is going to win this tournament, it'll be one of those three. Honduras is at a low ebb in their fortunes, are missing some players, and just proved unable to overcome a tenacious nine-man Guatemala, but their roster has bags of experience and a lot of their players have been working together for years upon years in the domestic league. Honduras has almost made a career out of being underestimated. Costa Rica is almost trying to renovate their national program and have brought a very young team (including one player, 18-year-old Francisco Calvo, who just completed his freshman year at San Jacinto College in Texas). But they have some remarkable, experienced, but still young players at forward, defense, and midfield, as well as the reigning Gold Cup best goalkeeper in Keylor Navas.
As for Canada, well, anything I say about them will reek of partiality. They're not perfect, but they have a stronger team than usual as well as the depth to cope with a few injuries. For once, goalkeeping isn't a question and the midfield finally seems more-or-less settled. There are no Paul Stalteri types clinging on for one last ride. Except for Mexico, I think beating every team in this tournament is within the bounds of reason for the Canucks.
The Schmucks: Cuba and Grenada have one purpose in this tournament: get scored on so we can determine which teams are better on goal differential. Both looked utterly hapless in their first match. I'd say Grenada is noticeably weaker than Cuba; the Caribbean Lions got smacked around by Costa Rica but Grenada were thoroughly trounced by a very pedestrian Jamaican team, and of course Grenada beat Cuba in the third-place game of the 2010 Caribbean Cup. But neither of these guys have a snowball's hope in hell of advancing. Watch for Cuban goalkeeper Odelín Molina, who at 36 years of age has represented his country over a hundred times according to Wikipedia; there's at least a 10% chance that's true!
Not Actually a Schmuck: Yes, Mexico turned El Salvador into goo on Sunday. You've probably noticed, though, that Mexico's pretty good. While I don't think this El Salvadoran team is as good as the one which briefly terrorized the 2009 tournament, I do think they have some quality. Unfortunately, the evisceration they took at the hands of Mexico has really set them back: unless Mexico does that to everybody it's hard to believe El Salvador is going to be one of the two best third-place teams. El Salvador has to beat Costa Rica. Like, they really have to beat Costa Rica, and it'll take something special for that to happen. But they're no doormats, notwithstanding their first game.
Not Actually Any Good: Jamaica beat Grenada 4-0 yesterday and I think they're done. Unless you watched the game, you may not believe how sloppy Jamaica's play was. Perhaps they were taking liberties against a markedly inferior Grenadan team but their passes were dancing lightly through the middle like fairies on the breeze. Their offense was uncreative, their midfield buildup was nil, their defense survived by having an elementary understanding of soccer tactics. Their goals (they should have had a fifth that rebounded off the crossbar and seemed to get over the line) came because the Grenadan defenders simply can't play this game at an international level. If they're like that against anybody who can play even a little bit they'll be torn limb from limb. I'll be fascinated to see them against Guatemala on Friday, and frankly I think I'd bet the Guatemalans.
The Sneaky Good Team: Most Gold Cups have a sneaky good team; the guys who you never see coming and who thunder out to beat opponents you've actually heard of. 2007 Guadeloupe is the patron saint of this trope, and in 2009 Panama and Haiti diluted the honour between them and thus deprived us of a glorious knockout-round upset. This year, and I know it's easy to say this after last night's games, I think it's Guatemala.
Guatemala has a decent team. It's loaded with veteran players who have dozens of international caps and know each other inside and out. They have Carlos Ruiz and Dwight Pezzarossi: the players every upset-minded team needs who can leap on another team's mistakes and turn them into goals. They're not a skilled team, obviously, but they're tenacious and their chemistry helps them a lot. Against Honduras they were on a rampage: cutting out passes, contesting every ball, and making the more talented Hondurans' every step a waking nightmare. They ran Hondurans out of gas and ran their attackers out of options then turned the ball around in a ferocious counterattack which didn't produce any goals but seldom failed to produce opportunities. Even when Mexican referee Francisco Chacon proved that Jack Warner's spirit lives on by sending off two Guatemalans under very sketchy circumstances, Guatemala not only held on but had the best chance of the game's last ten minutes.
Sound familiar? That's the sort of play that wins crappy teams games in tournaments like this. Guatemala has a small amount of skill and a load of garbage players with no inhibitions and an intuitive understanding of each other. They played Costa Rica damned hard in the Copa Centroamericana and kayoed Nicaragua nicely in the critical fifth-place match. There's a real upset hidden in them, and I have them coming out of this group one way or another.
The Game That Nobody Thinks Will Be Good But Totally Might Be: Another Gold Cup tradition, and I have as my choice the United States vs. Panama in Tampa, Florida on June 11. I've discussed my skepticism about the Americans above. There might be a very strong Panamanian crowd in Tampa cheering their boys along. While Panama's team is a classic tweener (not bad enough to sink but not good enough to make much noise), they're traditionally mediocre enough that the young and erratic Americans could underestimate them. If Luis Tejada and Blas Pérez get loose against the likes of Tim Ream there could be goals. In 2009 the Americans needed extra time heroics from Kenny Cooper to beat Panama in the quarter-finals: we may see the same level of fight again. The Americans are favourites, but I predict a battle.
The Other Guys: the only team I haven't yet mentioned is Guadeloupe. I don't exactly know what to say about them. Their group is going to be tough to get out of and this isn't the best team they've ever sent. Guadeloupe always brings a hell of a game for the Gold Cup and they've got the stuff to get past Panama (or Canada) on a good day, but is there really a 2007-style run in them? I doubt it. Meanwhile, they're nowhere near bad enough to dump into Cuba/Grenada territory. In another year, another group, Guadeloupe might have made history again. As it is, they'll just have to make weight.