Dark horses and lovable minnows: A neutral’s cheering guide to the Gold Cup
The winner of the Gold Cup has already been foretold. In fact, the tournament probably could be decided by a coin toss. Heads, Mexico wins. Tails, the United States wins. The two giants of CONCACAF have won every Gold Cup but one. Yes, Mexico or the U.S. may get upset in the semifinals, but then the other just prevails.
But while the Gold Cup final may play like a broken record, the rest of the tournament marches to a different beat. Many of the teams from smaller nations, perhaps “weaker” in a competitive sense, still field players of skill, and a few tiny nations have gone on memorable runs.
Here is a preview of the teams that probably won’t win the Gold Cup but still deserve your attention. These Davids won’t defeat Goliath at the end of the story, but it’s still fun rooting for them. Here’s why:
The Canaleros are good. Very good. They barely missed out on the 2016 World Cup playoff versus New Zealand due to a late Graham Zusi goal in the last game of qualifying. Panama reached the Gold Cup final in 2013 after knocking off Mexico. It also reached the final in 2005. Yes, both times Panama lost to the U.S., but just reaching the summit was an accomplishment.
At the most recent Gold Cup, Panama was poised to beat Mexico in the semifinals until two very late, controversial penalties were called in favor of El Tri. Still, Panama beat the U.S. to take third.
At the 2017 tournament, Panama's selección is as cosmopolitan as they come. Of 22 players, Panamanians are active in 14 different leagues around the world. They ply their trade for clubs from Portugal to Colombia to Slovakia to Uruguay to Romania. The lion’s share play in Major League Soccer, not the Liga Panameña.
The team is about the collective, not the individual. Panama plays with a great team spirit fostered by the coach, Colombian Hernán Darío Gómez. The Canaleros defend as a unit and with physicality. On offense, they can either counterattack with speed or patiently stroke the ball around the park.
If any team is a dark horse to win the tournament, it’s Panama.
The Catrachos are a Gold Cup staple and would be unhappy with anything less than a run to the semifinals. Unlike Panama, a big chunk of their roster comes from the national league. Almost all their defenders and strikers play for the two big domestic clubs: Olimpia and Motagua.
The midfielders, though, ply their trade all over the world. Jorge Claros found a payday in China, Alfredo Mejia is in Greece, Carlos Discua plays in Costa Rica, Andy Najar is still in Belgium, and Boniek Garcia of the Houston Dynamo has earned a call-up.
The key to Honduras’ attack is a creative midfielder with at times mesmerizing technical ability: Romell Quioto. Quioto was signed by the Houston Dynamo this past winter after a great season at Olimpia, but he has struggled with injuries in the early going. Right now, Quioto is allegedly only "80 percent fit," whatever that means. Still, with or sans Quioto, or only an 80 percent Quioto, expect Honduras to advance out of the group stage and roar towards the semifinals.
Jamaica’s national team had a bipolar summer in 2015. The Reggae Boyz lost all three group-stage games at the Copa America in June then enjoyed their best ever Gold Cup run in July. Yet, in retrospect, this makes sense. At the Copa America, they lost all three games by only a single goal and played well-drilled, counter-attacking soccer against vastly superior sides. In the Gold Cup, they advanced out of their group and even knocked off the United States in the semifinals with two goals nicked off set pieces and a wonderful defensive performance.
Two summers ago, the big drama was captain Wes Morgan: He missed the opening Copa America game, but nobody knew precisely why. Some said he “partied” too hard; other said he was simply “tired.” Could he have been “tired” from “partying?” Or “partying” because he was “tired?” Likely.
Luckily, his club team, Leicester City, did not win any trophies this year, so he should not have any distractions. Yes, he has suffered hamstring problems since April, but there is hope he’ll be fit for Jamaica come July. And to get out of the group stages, Jamaica will need Morgan.
The local press in El Salvador is not very optimistic about the team’s chances. The Guanacos have never reached the final of the tournament, let alone the semifinals. Their Colombian coach, Eduardo Lara, has only been in charge since December. His roster relies heavily on local players from the local clubs - Alianza and Santa Tecla - and there are some curious omissions. Basically, he dropped veterans left and right, asking everyone to trust the process.
Like Mexico, El Salvador is fielding a B team for the tournament. Lara is looking to the future. He wants to test-drive young players in a high-pressure, international tournament to see who can cut the mustard for the next World Cup qualifying cycle. Russia 2018 is no longer a possibility, but El Salvador can still dream of Qatar 2022.