The United States and Canada open Gold Cup play with the most important match of the beginning round (Tuesday, 8 pm ET; FOX Soccer, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com). With all due respect to Guadeloupe and Panama, the squad that prevails on Detroit's Ford Field should finish first in Group C. The Americans are the heavy favorites, but the visiting team is a dark horse to advance deep into the biennial event, and their talented attack could pose problems for a USA defense that's far from settled.
There is plenty of history between the two neighbors. They've played one another 29 times, including three times during the Gold Cup. The last time out, the Americans prevailed 2-1 in the semifinals of the 2007 tournament in which an Atiba Hutchinson goal in the 94th minute was called back because of a phantom offside. The Canadians will be seeking revenge for that match, and a victory for Stephen Hart's side would be the American's first-ever defeat in Gold Cup group play.
Both sides will field their strongest unit as this will be the stiffest test of the first round for each team. That said, don't be surprised to see the coaches adjust their lineups at halftime in order to save key players some minutes in anticipation of the long tournament ahead.
The first key: Forget Spain.
Bob Bradley's boys can take a bit of motivation from the 4-0 drubbing they experienced on Saturday night, but they should remove the rest of the night from their minds. It's over and done with — a poor performance that doesn't matter now. The focus must be the Gold Cup.
In many ways, Canada present the perfect challenge for the Americans. The neighbors to the north are a strong side, but the US are still heavy favorites. They should get their mojo back, feel better about their play and jump into the Group C driver's seat after a victory in Michigan.
Tactically, Canada can be exposed up the flanks, so look for Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to attack up the wings. It's a great opportunity for overlapping runs from fullbacks Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Bornstein as well, since the Canadian counterattack does not develop quickly. It also wouldn't be a surprise to see Alejandro Bedoya (likely), Robbie Rogers (less likely) or even Freddy Adu get some time out wide, too. This is a game where their talents could fit very well.
Hart's team is constantly overlooked in CONCACAF and for good reason: They are traditionally not that strong and saddled with bad luck. That reality is changing, slowly, and will only speed up as Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact help develop more talent.
The point here is that though no one would confuse them for the US or Mexico, quality players such as Hutchinson, Dwayne De Rosario, Will Johnson, Simeon Jackson and the mercurial Julian de Guzman give Hart options and a newfound depth.
The defense, specifically the wings, is the problem. Kevin McKenna is solid in the middle, but fullbacks Marcel de Jong, Mike Klukowski and Nik Ledgerwood will struggle. The best-case scenario for Hart and the crew is a one-goal loss, which puts them in prime position to finish second in Group C.
United States: Landon Donovan
The Galaxy star seeks his fourth Gold Cup championship. He missed the Spain slaughter with an illness, but he will start against Canada. He could have a huge game tearing through a soft Maple Leafs defense.
Canada: Atiba Hutchinson
The PSV Eindhoven midfielder makes this team go. He'll start out wide in Hart's 4-3-3 and will be key both in attack and, more importantly, defense. If Hutchinson gets overrun, the score line could get ugly.
United States predicted starting XI: Howard; Cherundolo, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Bornstein, Edu, Jones, Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore
Canada predicted starting XI: Borjan; de Jong, McKenna, Hainault, Ledgerwood, Johnson, De Rosario, Hutchinson, de Guzman, Friend, Simpson