Friday, July 3, 2009

CONCACAF Gold Cup 2009 Preview

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is the biennial nations championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean, and is the confederation’s premier event. The Gold Cup evolved from a series of championships in the region dating back to 1941.

It began in its current structure in 1991. At times, the CONCACAF championship also served as a qualifier for the World Cup, but since its inception, the Gold Cup has been an independent championship irrespective of other tournaments.

However, once every four years, the winner of the Gold Cup serves as the region’s entrant to the FIFA Confederations Cup. Initially an eight-team event, the Gold Cup finals have grown into a 12-nation championship with countries qualifying from the three regions of CONCACAF, North America, Central America (UNCAF) and the Caribbean (Caribbean Football Union).

The tournament features the best players from the region, and between 1996-2005 included guest teams from South America, Africa and Asia. The United States and Mexico have each won four Gold Cup titles with Canada claiming the one other crown.

This year's tournament however have lost some of its lustre as a host of teams (Mexico, Canada, USA, Honduras) have only brought their second stringers. Nevertheless this will allow other lesser countries to perhaps take center stage. Watch out for the inventive play of Guadaloupe and Costa Rica as they could be the dark horses of the tournament. The reigning Caribbean champions, Jamaica will also try to make an impression whilst adjusting to life without John Barnes.

Here is how the teams stack up as predicted by Matt Barger who is a contributor for Bleacher Report.
"Can Team USA defend its 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup title over the next three weeks in the United States? Maybe. But it will be a very hard road to glory. And don't worry, there will be plenty of controversy along the way.

In this prediction, I will walk through my version of the tournament with detailed analysis of the group stages, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final matches.

Group A
This group is easily the Group of Death.

Costa Rica (7+ points)
The only guarantee in this group is that CONCACAF World Cup qualifying leader Costa Rica will come out the winner with at least seven points.

Jamaica (4+ points)
Jamaica will play with something to prove this Gold Cup after an unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign. With prolific, underrated Stoke striker Ricardo Fuller (who was rarely used for the Reggae Boyz in qualifying), the team will turn some heads and finish second.

El Salvador (4+ points)
The surprise of CONCACAF qualifying will probably come out on the losing end of the dead heat for second. They have handily defeated both Jamaica (without Fuller) and Canada in qualifying, and they will give Costa Rica a run for its money.

Canada (1+ points)
Unlucky draw for the Canucks, who would probably get out of the group in any other edition of this tournament.

Group B
The microcosm of CONCACAF. Two continental powers against two lowly, no-hope minnows.

United States (7+ points)
Expect every formation of no-names possible in routs of Grenada and Haiti. All eyes will be on Freddy Adu against Honduras, an opponent the USA will surely not underestimate this time around.

Honduras (6+ points)
They will look for a similar spark against the United States while overestimating the other two minnows. That doesn't mean they lose to them.

Grenada (1+ points)
Shalrie Joseph and the Caribbean Championship runners-up could make Honduras sweat, but most likely in a losing effort.

Haiti (0+ points)
A cast of lovable no-names in a shark tank. Nothing to lose, and could definitely shock Honduras or Grenada.

Group C
A similarly predictable group with a slight twist.

Mexico (9 points)
How is it Mexico gets the host's easy-pass group? Expect Carlos Vela and Omar Bravo to compete for the Golden Boot through this group alone. Easy domination for Mexico.

Guadeloupe (4+ points)
Here's a bold prediction. Tiny Guadeloupe finish ahead of Panama in second place. The tiny Caribbean island claims birth or parental lineage rights to Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry and Sylvain Distin, and have players all over Ligue 1, Ligue 2, and the rest of Europe. They had a nice run through the Caribbean Championship, dominating most opponents and placing third in a thriller against Cuba. This team has the potential and pedigree to continue upholding their rising form.

Panama (4+ points)
In contrast, this is a team with older players, broken potential, and declining talent from 2007. Jaime Penedo, who played for Osasuna in 2007 and was Panama's only La Liga player, now plays his club ball in Guatemala. Blas Perez, the dangerous striker tapped for Real Betis in 2007, plays for Pachuca. Add to these two an undisciplined, chaotic supporting class and no supporting midfielders, and you'll see this team's fall from grace to Guadeloupe soon enough.

Nicaragua (0+ Points)
But that doesn't mean Panama or the rest of the group won't beat up on these first-timers. Like Haiti, Nicaragua will be on damage control and has nothing to lose except all its games in the group stage.

Costa Rica should produce some fireworks en route to its semifinal appearance. The road gets harder for each team with tougher matches and more intense competition.

A1 vs. B2 — Costa Rica (2) vs. Honduras (1)
Costa Rica, hardened by the Group of Death, should have no problem dispatching these plucky Hondurans, who will be playing to prove they belong in the World Cup qualifying conversation.

Expect this to be closest matchup in the elite eight, as both countries are still in the running for 2010. Costa Rica wins, but not comfortably.

B1 vs. A3 or C3 — United States (2) vs. Panama (1)
Team USA should have beaten this team 4-1 last Gold Cup. Granted, it's no longer that team, but the U.S. will certainly beat the Central American champs, who were known last Gold Cup for their lack of discipline and chemistry in the defense and midfield.

But the Panamanians have revenge on the mind, and the 2007 quarterfinal defeat could be a catalyst to play as a team on attack and defense, keeping Perez and Penedo from doing all the work. This will still be a test for the Americans, but one they pass, especially if they are playing in Philadelphia.

A2 vs. C2 — Jamaica (3) vs. Guadeloupe (2)
Jamaica proves that former English colonies produce better overall footballers, as they did in the semifinal of the 2008 Caribbean Championship without Ricardo Fuller. Forget what I said about underestimating Guadeloupe. Jamaica in a rout.

C1 vs. A3 or B3 — Mexico (3) vs. El Salvador (0)
Mexico has a point to prove in this game. The last time these two teams played, El Salvador dominated 2-1. Mexico will remind its scrappy opponents why they have ever qualified for the World Cup. And they'll have the crowd on their side.

Places seem set for a U.S.-Mexico final. But each team will face a very tough opponent in the next round that will play with nothing to lose.

Semifinal One
Costa Rica (2) vs. United States (2, advances through penalties)
Easily the match of the tournament. What's in the water in Costa Rica? It's almost funny how many no-names are on this WCQ-leading Costa Rican team, a strong majority of them playing for Costa Rican clubs.

But MLS still struggles against continental competition, so this game will be close. Add to this the fact that neither coach will want to lose this match. Costa Rica is bringing almost the same team that beat the USA in Saprissa, and will want to prove to themselves they can win on U.S. soil.

But the USA has the home field, momentum, and reserves looking to impress and prove their worth, which may put them through. Honestly, I flipped a coin. But this match will be a classic.

Semifinal Two
Jamaica (2) vs. Mexico (3)
How do you counter a starting Premiership striker? Start two of your own substitute Premiership attackers who play for better sides. Defense will not be necessary for his game. Expect a shootout.

Mexico will start Arsenal's Carlos Vela and Tottenham's Giovani dos Santos. Omar Bravo, Mexico's Deportivo la Coruña striker, should have a good game as well. They will also be keying their superior defense on Ricardo Fuller, giving Colorado Rapids star Omar Cummings many attempts on goal.

Seeing as that oaf Conor Casey outperforms Cummings in Colorado, there might be some ugly finishing at Soldier Field. In any case, Mexico will go through, but Jamaica will make them earn it in a high-scoring game.

And here it is again — the CONCACAF super-derby.

Even in Giants Stadium, Mexican fans will even out the home field advantage. The USA are the underdog here, but, as usual for home matches against Mexico, they will get all the calls.

Bob Bradley will probably play his favorites again, meaning Jonny Magallon will have another chance to break Brian Ching's legs. Carlos Vela and Omar Bravo will be tough customers for Parkhurst and Conrad, but the main matchup will, once again, be in the midfield:

Freddy Adu vs. Giovani Dos Santos.

Adu will be in a battle to one-up one-upmanship against the Tottenham midfielder. Both can create amazing plays from nothing, and it will be a spectacle to see if Adu can earn some playing time back at Benfica with a spirited battle against a projected starter for Spurs.

But Gio has the better supporting cast and ultimately, the technically superior Mexican side should show their class against the MLS-dominated Americans and break Team USA's home unbeaten streak.

Mexico 3-1 United States.

But, as this will be team USA's second consecutive finals loss, team USA's first XI will snap El Tri's winning streak at Azteca two weeks later in World Cup Qualifying.

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