Three for Thursday: Which Gold Cup stars would make waves in MLS?
The group stage of the Gold Cup is done and dusted with 12 of the best teams in the region strutting their stuff as they battle for the continental crown.
In addition to the silverware at stake, the Gold Cup has often served as a shop window for MLS sides looking for that midseason boost or some talent to develop down the road.
Sometimes, the payoff is immediate, but in many cases, the Gold Cup can serve as a starting point for an eventual transfer down the road. Boniek García (Honduras) and Jaime Alas (El Salvador) both impressed in the 2011 Gold Cup, for example, but the former landed with the Houston Dynamo in summer 2012 and the latter with the San Jose Earthquakes in a signing announced earlier this week.
Who will follow in their footsteps? Below are three prospects – one from each Gold Cup group – that stood out in the first round and could make for a good fit with MLS teams, either now or down the road.
Roberto Chen (Panama)
The 19-year-old defender has found himself right at home on Panama's backline despite a dearth of senior international experience, playing a big role as Los Canaleros claimed top spot in Group A while conceding just one goal – in a 2-1 victory over Mexico.
Chen is typically a center back, but also showed in Panama's group-stage closer against Canada that he was more than capable of filling in at right back. He's comfortable with the ball at his feet and has shown no issues going up against far more experienced players from across the continent.
The Gold Cup is just the latest step forward in what looks to be a very promising career for Chen, who has represented Panama at the U-17 and U-20 levels, and has been a professional since the age of 17, with experience both in the Panamanian league and in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The youngster could indeed be close to MLS, having drawn interest from the Seattle Sounders after completing a trial just prior to the Gold Cup. Though he did not immediately receive a contract, he left with positive review from the Sounders, who reportedly have a one-year loan offer in for him, though he's now also drawing interest from Mexico.
Rodolfo Zelaya (El Salvador)
WATCH: Zelaya delights against T&T
The 5-foot-9 attacker has been the key offensive piece for El Salvador in the group stage, first serving notice with a pair of goals in their 2-2 draw with Trinidad and Tobago. One came off a well-executed free kick and the other showed good movement and instincts in the box as he netted a close-range header.
Though his other goal of the group stage – in a 1-0 decision against Haiti – came under more controversial circumstances, Zelaya nonetheless has established himself as a top attacker at the CONCACAF level dating back to the 2011 Gold Cup, where he scoed four goals.
The more physical style of MLS might be a step up for him, but he has been seasoned by loan spells at León (then in Mexico's second division) and most recently Alania Vladikavkaz in the Russian Premier League, as his international resumé continues to grow.
Slightly built secondary strikers have succeeded in MLS – see Columbus playmaker Federico Higuaín – and if Zelaya can show off his own abilities once more in La Selecta's quarterfinal matchup against the US on Sunday (4 pm ET, FOX, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), it could go a long way towards convincing some MLS scouts.
Ariel Martínez (Cuba)
WATCH: Martínez's great run sets up Cuba opener
It was hard to know what to make of Cuba as the tournament approached, but after three games and a knockout stage place, we sure know what to make of Martínez, the principle figure in Cuba's miraculous win over Belize and a thorn in the side of the United States and Costa Rica in two previous games.
The two-footed winger, with his big frame and pace, showed he can cope with the physical demands of high-level soccer and has a good deal of skill to boot, both of which were on display as he bested Edgar Castillo to create the goal that gave Cuba a shock lead against the US.
Though he was a bit wasteful in the game against Belize – yes, you read that right – converting three of his 14 attempts, a hat trick is a hat trick, and it's not like they were cheap goals, either, as they came on some emphatic and well-taken finishes.
An athletic winger who can get by his man, create goals and is responsible defensively? Sounds like an MLS coach's dream. Now the question is how he gets to the league ...