Dark horses and lovable minnows: A neutral’s cheering guide to the Gold Cup
The Ticos have become World Cup staples; they reliably qualify for the big dance out of CONCACAF, despite the occasional misstep (like the playoff loss to Uruguay in 2009). The national league boasts big clubs like Deportivo Saprissa and Alajuelense, and plenty of its players ply their trade in MLS and Europe.
Costa Rica’s starting goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, plays for a little old Spanish club named Real Madrid that recently won back-to-back Champions League titles (and also La Liga, for good measure). Navas is a tall, robust, formidable presence in the box who handles crosses well enough, comes off his line with aplomb, and has good reflexes. His club dominates most games, so he’s seldom overworked, but, more often than not, Navas comes up with the big save when called upon.
The other notable players are Bryan Ruiz, who has finally settled with Sporting Club in Portugal; Joel Campbell, a dangerous attacking player when fit and in form; and the timeless Christian Bolanos (no relation to Roberto). Signed by Vancouver in 2016, Bolaños is 33 years old but playing inspired soccer for the Ticos in qualifying. He can whip in a vicious cross or pinch inside and thread a sweet slide rule pass.
Despite the attacking talent, Costa Rica has not reached the Gold Cup semifinals since 2003. Its best ever showing was a loss in the 2002 final to the United States. Thus, the Ticos likely will underperform this summer, exit at the group stages or quarterfinals, but then stroll to Russia 2018 and get the last laugh. Pura vida, man. Pura vida.
The Pinoleros last appeared in the 2009 Gold Cup, and only qualified for that tournament after a memorable win against Guatemala in Guatemala City. Since then, the national team has continued to improve. Nicaragua beat Jamaica 3-2 in Kingston in the third round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, only to lose the return leg at home by two goals in excruciating fashion
The key player for Nicaragua is captain and midfield maestro Juan Barrera. He pulled all the strings in the 3-0 playoff win over Haiti. He plays professionally in Guatemala and has as humble an origin story as they come: at a young age, his family immigrated to Costa Rica to escape the rampant poverty in its hometown of Ocotal, Nueva Segovia.
If Nicaragua can beat Martinique on July 8, it has a decent shot of making the knockout round. If not, then just being present and playing well is a step forward for the program.
Canada is the only team other than the U.S. or Mexico to have won the Gold Cup, but it hasn’t reached the semifinals since 2007. Canada’s new coach, Octavio Zambrano, has used the dreaded “transition” term when talking about the team.
The lowlight for the team is that Atiba Hutchinson, an old but dependable player for Turkish champions Besiktas, is skipping the Gold Cup to fully recover from an injury. The good news is that both Scott Arfield, who plays for Burnley in the Premier League, and 16-year-old Alphonso Davies should be available and provide a touch of class.
Born in Liberia, Davies has played in MLS since he was 15 years old and only recently obtained his Canadian passport. This young man’s Youtube highlight videos say more than a thousand words. Expect him to shine out wide and show off some lovely dribbling skills before, you know, Canada gets bounced early on in the tournament.
Curacao, Martinique, and French Guiana
Can you find any of these three countries on a map? Care to take a stab at their population size? Curacao boasts a population of 160,000 people (same as Sioux Falls, South Dakota) and is an island nation just off the northern Venezuela coast. Martinique has 380,000 residents (the same as St. Louis, Missouri) and is a part of the Antilles volcanic island arc in the eastern Caribbean. Lastly, French Guiana, with 250,000 souls total (see: Glendale, Arizona) is just west of Suriname and shares a border with Brazil.
Nobody expects these smaller nations to score a goal, let alone win a game. Emerging from their groups would be a shock. Yet they can take heart in the extremely strong Gold Cup showings by Guadeloupe (population: 405,000) a decade ago. In 2007, Guadeloupe reached the semifinals and lost to Mexico by a single goal. In 2009, Guadeloupe reached the quarterfinals before bowing out to the Ticos.
I would not bet on any of those three teams replicating the feats of Guadeloupe, but one can always dream.