Panama -- Complains -- Mark Geiger

It’s that time again, when the top 12 nations in North America, Central America and the Caribbean come together to compete in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament that routinely features plenty of familiar faces, some not-so-familiar ones, and plenty of drama. To make sense of it all, here’s 10 key themes to think about as group play begins on Friday:


10. French flavor

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Former Chelsea star Florent Malouda, right, will play for French Guiana in the Gold Cup after a long and distinguished international career with France / USA Today Sports Images


Two of the most unheralded teams in this year’s field are Martinique and French Guiana, both of which are former colonies turned “overseas departments” of France. They’re ineligible for FIFA competitions, but good to go at regional level, and with plenty of talent from the French leagues, could very well spring an upset or two.


9. Dutch treats

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First-time Gold Cup participants Curacao, with several European-based players, won their first-ever Caribbean Cup in June / Canada Soccer


Another country with a similar story: Gold Cup debutants Curacao, a Dutch island just north of Venezuela with many players at big clubs in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. In June they knocked off Jamaica to win their first-ever Caribbean Cup, and could make noise this month. Watch out for Elson Hooi, who scored a brace in the Caribbean Cup final, and teammates Gino van Kessel – a product of the Ajax system – and the wonderfully-named Felitciano Zschusschen, co-leading scorers in qualifying.


8. Can Canada rise again?

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Maxime Crepeau, left, Patrice Bernier and Jonathan Osorio will be teammates on Canada's Gold Cup roster / USA Today Sports Images


Les Rouges won this tournament in 2000 and finished third in 2002. But since then they’ve reached the semifinals just once – along with repeated failures in World Cup qualifying. There’s new hope with former MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) head coach Octavio Zambrano in charge. He’s got a balanced, MLS-heavy squad capable of scoring goals and winning games. Group A looks rugged, though.


7. Can Nicaragua play Cinderella?

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Nicaragua will be an underdog, but captain Juan Barrera, the first Nicaraguan to play in Europe, is a talented goalscorer / USA Today Sports Images


A nation traditionally more devoted to baseball, Nicaragua are taking part in the Gold Cup for just the second time after edging Haiti in a Central America-Caribbean playoff. Their team is short on stars – though captain Juan Barrera, the first Nicaraguan to play in Europe, is an accomplished goalscorer. But Los Pinoleros will play with pride and unity in search of some underdog magic against the US and the rest of Group B.


6. Ticos aim for elusive title

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Minnesota United's Johan Venegas will look to build on a promising Copa America Centenario with Costa Rica last year / USA Today Sports Images


For decades Costa Rica have been CONCACAF’s mouse that roared, keeping pace with – and occasionally beating – the region’s giants Mexico and the United States. They’ve never won the Gold Cup, however, coming closest in a runners-up finish in 2002. Coach Oscar Ramirez and MLSers Francisco Calvo, David Guzman, Rodney Wallace, Marco Ureña and Johan Venegas will lead the charge for history this year.


5. Cuscatlecos summon the spirit of Cal FC

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American-born goalkeeper Derby Carrillo will try to help the Salvadorans create a little Gold Cup magic / USA Today Sports Images


Have you enjoyed the giant-killing heroics of FC Cincinnati and Miami FC in this year’s US Open Cup? Then maybe you’ll root for El Salvador at the Gold Cup. Two of their mainstays, goalkeeper Derby Carrillo and midfielder Richard Menjivar, were stars in the 2012 Open Cup run of Cal FC, the amateur side coached by Eric Wynalda that beat the Portland Timbers in their own stadium.


4. Catrachos and Canaleros hunt momentum

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FC Dallas' Maynor Figueroa, left, and Toronto FC's Armando Cooper could be battling against each other for the final half-berth in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying / USA Today Sports Images


Honduras and Panama are both juggling the Gold Cup with the wider priority of earning a World Cup berth in the Hexagonal, the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying which concludes this fall. The Central American nations will most likely wind up in direct competition for the fourth-place spot which offers a place in an intercontinental playoff vs. an Asian team. A good Gold Cup could help fuel a push in that direction.


3. Aiming for Qatar

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After winning the 2015 Gold Cup, Mexico beat 2013 champion U.S.A. to earn a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup / USA Today Sports Images


Beyond regional bragging rights, the winner of this Gold Cup gets a very tangible reward in, at the very least, the right to a playoff for CONCACAF’s spot at the next Confederations Cup, set for Qatar in 2021. This summer’s champion will meet the 2019 Gold Cup victor for that spot in the one-game CONCACAF Cup. That is, unless the team that wins this year also wins in 2019, making such a playoff unnecessary.


2. El Tri seek consolation

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After a loss to Germany in the Confederations Cup semifinals, El Tri could use the Gold Cup as a platform to rebound / USA Today Sports Images


Mexico’s Confederations Cup dreams died painfully in this week’s 4-1 semifinal loss to Germany. Now coach Juan Carlos Osorio – should he hang on to his job amid all the dismay over the setback – will turn towards the Gold Cup with a distinctly different, and entirely domestic-based, roster than the one that trekked to Russia. A championship run might be cold comfort, but at least it’s something.


1. USMNT auditions in the spotlight

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New England's Kelyn Rowe is one of several players who will be looking to make a good impression on US manager Bruce Arena / USA Today Sports Images


Meanwhile, Mexico’s co-favorites, the US, enter this event with a similar roster approach, as Bruce Arena has given many of his regulars some time off in order to provide less familiar faces with an opportunity to impress. Newcomers like Dom Dwyer, Kenny Saief and Kelyn Rowe are hungry to prove that they belong in the USMNT picture for good.

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