By Sean McElroy
If there is such a thing as a CONCACAF group of death, I think Group A is it, with three strong teams vying for…oh yeah, probably three spots. But, alas, Group A shall (hopefully) yield some excellent soccer. Off we go!
Nickname: El Tricolor
Manager: José Manuel de la Torre
Current FIFA Ranking: 28
Current ELO Ranking: 12
Highest Ever FIFA Ranking: 4, May 2005
Reasons Why US Fans should despise them: If you really need a reason.
In my opinion, Mexico is the best team in CONCACAF on paper. However, several weaknesses and uncertainties might doom Mexico to a silver medal in the tourney. It seems eminently clear that Mexico should be able to easily navigate group A. One big uncertainty is between the sticks. It remains uncertain who will tend the net for Mexico, given the absence of José de Jesús Corona. My guess is that they will go with experience, and play Ochoa in net. On defense, their biggest problem is size. They have several talented defenders, such as Rafa Marquez (New York Red Bulls) and Carlos Salcido (Fulham), but their back line is still fairly small. Look for big, physical teams to try to exploit this on set pieces (and this is the way I think the United States can beat Mexico in practice). Mexico’s threat on offense is multifaceted, but most pundits will be obsessed with a single name. Javier Hernandez, the artist concurrently known as Chicharito, has shown his deadly speed and his, dare I say it, Henry-esque abilities with Manchester United this year. He is clearly the most talented striker in CONCACAF, and I look for him to tear it up against the likes of El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Cuba in Group A. All in All, I think Mexico poses an enormous threat, and with Rafa Marquez as their captain, it seems clear that their cheap style of play, full of diving, whining, and cheating will be present at this tourney. All joking aside, this is one of the best Mexican teams in history. Aside from being the strongest attacking side in CONCACAF, they have a solid defense and I do not believe that any team other than the United States will be able to bring them down. Look for them to breeze to three easy victories in this group, and look for them to be playing for it all in Pasadena come the end of June.
Nickname: La Selecta
Manager: Ruben Israel
Current FIFA Ranking: 87
Current ELO Ranking: 94
Highest FIFA Ranking: 50, December 1992
Reasons Why US Fans should despise them: We probably shouldn’t, we really did some nasty stuff in there during the Cold War. Sorry about that.
First and foremost, that’s a lame nickname El Salvador. This is definitely the most difficult team to analyze and discuss, simply because El Salvador could be one of the best or one of the worst teams in CONCACAF, on any given day. Well known to MLS fans will be their midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who plays for Real Salt Lake, however, most of their players play domestically in Honduras, and will remain enigmatic until the actual Gold Cup. Looking at past results, El Salvador has failed to make it out of their group in the last two Gold Cups, and I think their only hope to make it out of this group is to grab one of the third place slots. They did an impressive job during the 2010 World Cup qualification cycle, taking down Panama in the second round and taking the lead against the United States in both of their matches during the final round of qualifying (the United States drew them 2-2 away and beat them 2-1 at the Rio Tinto). Thus, if that El Salvador shows up, they could potentially upset any team in CONCACAF, even Mexico. But far more likely is that they end up cannon fodder for Mexico and Costa Rica, perhaps taking down the Cubans to secure third in the group (they did beat the Cubans 1-0 in a friendly a couple months ago). In all likelihood, they are not going to be a dangerous team, but they are not a team to ignore. Finally, a fun fact about El Salvador—they have scored only one goal in their six World Cup finals matches, but they have conceded twenty-two times. This is likely a reason to bet strongly against them should they reach a quarterfinal and play a high-level opponent.
Nickname: Ticos, La Sele
Manager: Ricardo La Vope
Current FIFA Ranking: 53
Current ELO Ranking: 43
Highest Ever FIFA Ranking: 17, May 2003
Reasons Why US Fans should despise them: It’s their fault that we didn’t qualify for the 1986 World Cup. Apparently US Soccer screwed over the national team by making a critical qualifier a big Costa Rican love fest instead of the PBR-fueled fortresses that we create today. Seriously, read up on this, it was really a bad moment for US Soccer, almost like Chuck Blazer voting for Qatar instead of the Unit…oh never mind.
Other than Mexico, Costa Rica is the most dangerous team in Group A, and perhaps the third strongest side in CONCACAF. Many of you will remember Costa Rica’s valiant performance in the 2006 World Cup, where they played a decent match against a strong German side in the opener. They also hold the distinction of being the only central American side to have ever played a World Cup knockout match. A talented side, Costa Rica attacks with speed, and plays a lot like a South American side—lots of quick passing on the wings, looking for speed and skill rather than the brute force that is commonplace in MLS or the EPL. They have some genuine striking talent in Bryan Ruiz, their captain, who practices his trade for F.C. Twente in the Netherlands. Look for him, along with Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio, who could use the tournament to revive a campaign gone awry, to provide the attacking flair for Costa Rica. Their defense is less tested, and will likely leak quite a few goals, even against weaker opponents. Yet, even with this area of concern, their offensive firepower should see them through this group. Costa Rica could go as far as a semi, but they do not have the talent to take on even a depleted American or Mexican side (off their home soil). They are an interesting wild card pick to win this tourney, but it would take likely two remarkable matches—against the top two teams in the region, and I don’t think any country is good enough to beat both Mexico and the United States in succession. Also, pay close attention to the Mexico-Costa Rica match; it could very well end up being replayed in the semifinal (yes, that’s how the Gold Cup works.)
Nickname: Leones del Caribe (The Lions of the Caribbean)
Manager: Raul Gonzalez Triana
Current FIFA Ranking: 81
Current ELO Ranking: 98
Highest Ever FIFA Ranking: 46, June 2006
Reasons for US Fans to despise them: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Duh. Apparently the new X-men movie is about this. This is probably the first and only X-men mention in the history of the TYAC.
Cuba and the United States have one very critical thing in common. While our governments may not like each other very much, our people, in general, agree on one thing. Baseball is more important than soccer. However, unlike the United States, Cubans are awful at soccer. They have only made it out of their group once (having qualified several times for the tournament). This year will likely be no different. Their squad is full of virtually unknown players, all of whom practice their trade for domestic Cuban clubs.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Cuba is that their best players defect during the Gold Cup—in fact, many players choose to defect to the United States during the tournament—this happened in both the 2005 and 2007 Gold Cups, and it even happened before the World Cup qualifier vs. the United States. So, my preview of Cuba is mainly two predictions: first, at least one of their best players will defect (my money is on the bloke who plays for FC Guantanamo), and, second, that they will lose every match they play, possibly badly.
Should be nine points for Mexico. I think Cuba is the weakest side in this, and I look for both El Salvador and Costa Rica to comfortably beat them. The Costa Rica v. El Salvador match will be critical, and it occurs on the last day of this group.
Mexico 9 pts
Costa Rica 6 pts
El Salvador 3 points
Cuba 0 points, 2 defections.
Sean McElroy is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @fulhamerican.