Gold Cup Group C preview: Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, USMNT
Head coach: Ian Mork (USA)
MLS connections: None
Previous Gold Cup appearances: None
Without question, the Jaguars are this year's Gold Cup Cinderellas. Belize have never before qualified for the tournament and the program has been a CONCACAF member for less than three decades. In fact, the nation of Belize itself (population: 334,297) is not much older than US national team captain DaMarcus Beasley, having only attained independence from Great Britain in 1981. The Football Federation of Belize has been scrambling to gather the finances required to send their boys to compete in the United States, raising funds through parties, corporate donations and even a telethon. The Kansas-born Mork, Belize's third manager this calendar year, will set up his team in a defend-and-counter system, with striker Deon McCaulay and goalkeeper Shane Orio, who plays his club soccer with Honduran power CD Marathón, central to the Jaguars' upset hopes.
Head coach: Jorge Luis Pinto (Colombia)
Previous Gold Cup appearances: 11; runners-up in 2002
Los Ticos are riding high after their solid start to the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and have good reason to fancy a deep Gold Cup run as well, though a few important figures like Bryan Ruiz have been given a summer break. Saborío, one of several faces familiar to MLS fans, spearheads a fluid attack which is capable of troubling any back line in the tournament. Miller and former LA Galaxy and Chivas USA defender Michael Umaña anchor a backline which looks a bit lightweight in one important area: goalkeeping. Keylor Navas is off duty for this event and the trio of netminders called in his place are a bit short on international experience. All the same, with strong play and a bit of luck, a trip to the final is not out of the question.
Head coach: Wálter Benítez (Cuba)
MLS connections: None
Previous Gold Cup appearances: 6; quarterfinalists in 2003
Soccer is slowly but surely eclipsing baseball in the reclusive island nation, which has now qualified for six of the last seven Gold Cups. Yet Los Leones del Caribe are once again the tournament's most mysterious entry, bringing only domestic-based players due to Cuba's peculiar political realities – and once again the specter of players disappearing in search of political asylum while on US soil looms large, just as in previous editions. Despite crashing out of World Cup qualifying in the third round with a winless, last-place finish in Group C last year, Cuba booked their Gold Cup place via a championship run at the Caribbean Cup in Antigua. Midfielder Ariel Martínez was their leading scorer in that event and at the other end, 38-year-old goalkeeper Odelín Molina – one of the oldest players in the Gold Cup – notched three consecutive clean sheets as part of a 374-minute shutout streak to lead the way to the title.
Head coach: Jurgen Klinsmann (Germany)
MLS connections: Corey Ashe (Houston), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Will Bruin (Houston), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (San Jose), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago), Jack McInerney (Philadelphia), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose)
Previous Gold Cup appearances: 11; champions in 1991, 2002, 2005, 2007
With a unique blend of young up-and-comers and veteran savvy, you might call this Klinsmann's "B+ team," and the USMNT boss makes no bones about the fact that he's aiming for the top spot after the USA's stinging losses to archrivals Mexico in the championship final of the last two editions. The likes of Donovan, midfield metronome Jose Torres and center back Oguchi Onyewu are hungry to prove that they're still national-team material after missing out on the Yanks' recent World Cup qualifying action, while McInerney, Beltran and Bruin lead a pack of fresher faces hoping to state their own international credentials after standout displays in MLS. Opening against minnows Belize and Cuba should provide an ideal runup to the likely group decider against Costa Rica, though this team will really be judged on what they do in the knockout stages. Anything less than a trip to the final will be a glaring underachievement.
In all honesty, little Belize fall under the "just happy to be here" category and taking even a single point from their adventure would be an impressive achievement. That holds the potential to skew the group dynamics a bit, though it's up to Cuba to prove that they're here to do anything more than make up the numbers as well. Their opening game against Costa Rica looms large, not only because Los Ticos are their likely rival for second place behind the US, but also due to the fact that it could well be their only match at full strength, should defections deplete the camp as they have in years past.
For the host nation, qualification for the knockout rounds is the bare minimum, expectations-wise. The US play their first two matches at JELD-WEN Field and Rio Tinto Stadium, two compact, atmospheric venues likely to be packed with home supporters urging them on. Questions will be asked if they have not already reaped six points and a substantial goal-differential cushion by the time they meet Costa Rica at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., on July 16. A first-place finish would set the Yanks up for the championship run they crave, though they must beware the threat of Los Ticos, who they might well meet again at the tournament's business end.
Very little is expected from Belize and Cuba, but past experience has shown that smaller nations like them can benefit from the experience gained on the Gold Cup stage. And of course, it's a rare opportunity for the players to represent their nation – and boost their own career prospects – in the continent's showcase tournament.