By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Mar 8, 2017) US Soccer Players – The year before a World Cup is The year before a World Cup is typically an important year for CONCACAF teams. High on the list of priorities is qualifying for the World Cup. Somewhere down below for one CONCACAF nation is the Confederations Cup, which gives that team the chance to play in the same venues and in the same country as next summer’s World Cup.
And then there’s the Gold Cup. Entertaining? Sure. Important? Negligible.
The Gold Cup picture came into focus on Tuesday when CONCACAF announced the groups and knockout-round paths teams must take to reach the final.
In a typical year, it’s difficult to get excited for the Gold Cup, a cash-grab tournament at best. In 2017 though that task becomes nearly impossible.
More soccer across American stadiums, on television sets and streaming on mobile devices may seem like a good thing. On some level it is. However, CONCACAF long ago became the expert on how to exploit that.
This will be the third consecutive summer a “major” international tournament will happen on American soil. Why was the 2015 Gold Cup important? That was an open quesiton, certainly worth asking. CONCACAF had a quick answer. They gave a half-ticket to the Confederations Cup, which Mexico claimed with a Gold Cup win. They took the rest of it with a victory over 2013 Gold Cup champs the USMNT in a one-off match called the CONCACAF Cup. Another event for FIFA in a big American venue, one of the biggest with that game at the Rose Bowl.
Last summer, South American teams descended upon the United States for the Copa America Centenario. That was a somewhat savory tournament that gave hope that the future would hold more similar events instead of the usual stuff thrown our way.
The usual stuff returns in 2017. The drama surrounding CONCACAF will play out well before then. Can the Americans turn things around against Honduras at home on March 24? Can Mexico recapture past glory at Estadio Azteca against Costa Rica the same day? Panama play at Trinidad on March 24, then hosy the Americans four days later. Can los Canaleros take a massive step toward the World Cup with four or six points?
What will the groups look like on June 8 when qualifying resumes? Will Bruce Arena’s men still be in it when Trinidad visits? Mouth-watering matchups round out the day with Costa Rica hosting Panama and Honduras visiting Mexico. The US then will visit Mexico on June 11 just before El Tri head off to Russia for the Confederations Cup.
Drama already exists in CONCACAF. The Gold Cup will be a glorified friendly tournament devoid of any true significance. The real winners and losers of the region will play out over the course of the calendar year, not solely in July.
Watered Down Groups
Granted, CONCACAF has never been a deep region. Some of the participants in this year’s tournament will have even the diehard fans looking at a map. Curacao and French Guiana are participating in the Gold Cup for the first time. Curacao last played in a CONCACAF Championship in 1973. French Guiana has never participated in any form of the confederation tournament.
Mexico will play Curacao in San Antonio on July 16, the second part of a doubleheader also featuring El Salvador-Jamaica. Mexico-Jamaica, on July 13 in Denver, is a somewhat intriguing rematch of the 2015 Gold Cup final. Dropping the significance is the Reggae Boyz not reaching the Hexagonal in World Cup qualifying.
The USMNT will play Martinique and the winner of the Haiti-Nicaragua play-in series as well as Panama. It’s difficult to drum up interest in matches that will certainly seem lopsided in the bigger country’s favor.
The Gold Cup will be anything but a priority for five of the participants. Save for Trinidad, all the teams participating in the Hexagonal will play in the Gold Cup. Winning the Gold Cup title will mean nothing if qualifying is a failure.
For Mexico, it means even less. Mexico’s first order of business this year is to qualify for the World Cup, preferably in a less-stressful manner than it did four years ago. A distant second is to show well at the Confederations Cup. Third will be the Gold Cup. The squad choices for Mexico will reflect that. Gold Cup fans can expect to see a team of young and untested players competing for El Tri across mammoth NFL stadiums this summer.
Squad choices for other teams will also reflect the lack of significance the tournament will have. Don’t expect any team to send all of their top players to the Gold Cup. The emphasis will be on qualifying which means teams will not want to risk players getting injured at the tournament.
Someday CONCACAF may ease up on the Gold Cup and host it once every four years. Or better yet, Copa America will take over as the quadrennial tournament for CONCACAF nations. Until then, CONCACAF summer takeovers will continue.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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