2011 Gold Cup: Group A preview
Head coach: José Manuel de la Torre (Mexico)
MLS connections: Rafa Márquez (New York)
Gold Cup appearances: 11; champions in 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2009
Mexico have had more success in this tournament than any other country, winning five times since its inception in 1991. And with the veteran Márquez anchoring the back line and Manchester United’s world-class striker Javier “Chicarito” Hernández stationed up top, they are one of the clear favorites once again. The Mexican roster includes eight players who currently play for European clubs and four members of the Monterrey team that recently claimed the CONCACAF Champions League title. Striker Carlos Vela and midfielder Paul Aguilar were surprising omissions, but de la Torre’s side is still loaded with the likes of attacker Giovani dos Santos (the 2009 Gold Cup MVP) and midfielder Andrés Guardado (who set up Mexico’s first goal in the 2010 World Cup). In all, 14 players remain from the squad that advanced to knockout stages in South Africa last summer.
Head coach: Ricardo La Volpe (Argentina)
MLS connections: Álvaro Saborío (Real Salt Lake)
Gold Cup appearances: 10; runners-up in 2002
Costa Rica aren’t at the same level as the elite CONCACAF squads like Mexico or the United States — but they’re not far off. Los Ticos have never won a Gold Cup, but came close a couple of times, most recently losing to eventual champion Mexico in the 2009 semifinals. To finally bring home a championship, this year’s squad will need to rely on the deadly goal-scoring combination of Saborío and FC Twente striker Bryan Ruiz up top, a pairing that will look to ease the burden on Costa Rica’s inexperienced back line.
Head coach: Rubén Israel (Uruguay)
MLS connections: Arturo Alvarez (Real Salt Lake), Steve Purdy (Portland)
Gold Cup appearances: 7; quarterfinals in 2002, 2003
Team capsule: Los Cuscatlecos, who haven't made it out of group play in eight years, will have the odds stacked against them once again. In addition to dealing with heavyweights Mexico and Costa Rico, the Salvadorans must also get adjusted to their third head coach since 2009. El Salvador qualified for the Gold Cup by placing fourth in the Copa Centroamericana, where Salvadoran striker Rafael Burgos scored three times to capture the Golden Boot. Alvarez and Purdy — both of whom were born in America of Salvadoran descent and played for US national youth teams before switching allegiances — give the squad an MLS flair.
Head coach: Raúl González Triana (Cuba)
MLS connections: None
Gold Cup appearances: 6; quarterfinals in 2003
Just qualifying for the Gold Cup is an accomplishment for the Caribbean nation known more for baseball than soccer. Of course, Cuba also qualified for the 2009 Gold Cup before withdrawing from the tournament, perhaps partly because of the fear of players defecting to the United States (like Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and FC Dallas striker Maykel Galindo did in previous editions). This Cuba team, however, looked strong in qualifying, losing just one game in the Caribbean Cup while not allowing a goal in five of those contests. Roberto Linares, who scored four times in seven matches during World Cup qualifying, led the way offensively with two Caribbean Cup goals.
This is Mexico’s group to win, but don’t be surprised if Costa Rica put up a good fight against the favorites. In addition to having taken Mexico to PKs in the semis of the last Gold Cup, the Costa Ricans also have a unique knowledge of the Mexican side, as their manager — La Volpe — coached El Tri as recently the 2006 World Cup.
Still, there’s no denying the Mexicans are a force to be reckoned with. In the last Gold Cup, which was also held in the United States, Mexico thrashed the hosts 5-0 in the final (although the US trotted out their “B” team for that tournament). Anything short of a 2011 championship would be disappointing for El Tri, which will once again be buoyed by insane support around the country.
Of all the group-stage games, Mexico and Costa Rica meet each other last — on June 12 at Chicago’s Soldier Field. It should be a great contest, but by then it could be a mere formality. While El Salvador could threaten to break through if things break right (Cuba’s biggest accomplishment might be getting all their players back home following the tournament), both the Mexicans and Costa Rica should easily advance into the knockout phase — and perhaps even meet again in the semifinals in Houston.