By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Sep 28, 2020) US Soccer Players – The 2021 Gold Cup will mark the tournament's 16th edition. At the same time, the tournament will celebrate 30 years of existence. Over those three decades, the competition has both morphed and evolved with the times while making Concacaf teams more competitive at the World Cup.
It's that evolving nature that, pandemic allowing, will be on display in the summer of 2021. Expanding to 16 teams, the biennial tournament will for the first time conduct a draw to determine the group stage and preliminary round. There's also a throwback feel, returning to the invited guest format from its early editions. Qatar takes one of the 16 spots, with the 2022 World Cup hosts also guests at CONMEBOL's Copa America that concludes as the Gold Cup begins.
A dozen teams, including six-time winners United States, qualify directly to the group stage. Three other teams will qualify through the preliminary round from a pool of 12 during a mini-tournament set for the United States the week before the Gold Cup begins.
Critics of the format normally point to how it attempts to setup a USMNT vs Mexico final. Other nations have disrupted those plans in the past. This edition doesn't promise that winning all of their games will mean Mexico and the USMNT meet for the trophy. That bodes well for a competitive tournament in 2021, meaning the US and Mexico need to field their best lineups.
How the draw will work
The preliminary round and group stage draw will take place on Monday night in Miami. The teams will be split into four pots based on the FIFA rankings from this past August.
- Pot 1 has the four automatic seeds: Mexico in Group A, United States in Group B, Costa Rica in Group C and Honduras in Group D (joined by Qatar).
- Pot 2 will feature Canada, Jamaica, Panama and El Salvador.
- Pot 3 includes Martinique, Curacao, Suriname and Grenada.
- Pot 4 includes Qatar and the three teams that will emerge from the preliminary round.
The first two teams from each group advance to the knockout stage that begins with the quarterfinals. The championship game, with a city and venue yet to be named, is scheduled for August 1.
A look at the preliminary round
The draw for the preliminary round will involve 12 teams. They reached this stage based on their performances from the Concacaf Nations League group stage contested in 2019. The teams include the bottom-placed finishers in League A groups, runners-up in League B groups, and the winners of League C groups.
The top six teams from this group, based on Concacaf rankings from August, will take the 1 to 6 seeds. Those teams are Cuba, Bermuda, Guatemala, Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Trinidad & Tobago. The remaining six come from a single pot. That pot includes Barbados, French Guiana, Guyana, Montserrat, and St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, Bermuda, and Cuba can only meet in the third round. The prelims will be played between July 2-6 in three rounds of one-off games. The winners of those games advance to the Gold Cup group stage.
Further complicating the draw is Trinidad & Tobago's recent suspension by FIFA. The move last week came when the country's FA took FIFA to a local court over its appointment of a committee to run the federation. The previous leadership had, according to FIFA, "engaged in various acts of serious mismanagement."
Concacaf, in a statement Friday, said that Trinidad & Tobago will be part of the draw as planned. However, if the FIFA suspension isn't lifted by December 18, they would be replaced in the Gold Cup prelims by Antigua & Barbuda.
What the US can expect
The US last won the Gold Cup in 2017. Despite the importance of World Cup Qualifying and the World Cup finals, the Gold Cup remains an important test for the Americans as they continue to rebuild.
While COVID-19 has not allowed the USMNT to play friendlies or train together, the success of several players is a positive sign for coach Gregg Berhalter. For example, players like midfielder Weston McKennie, at Juventus this season, and striker Gio Reyna, off to a strong start at Borussia Dortmund, are just two examples of Americans succeeding in Europe.
Closer to home, the MLS season is also a great place to monitor talent. Jordan Morris is having an MVP season with Seattle while Gyasi Zardes continues to bag goals for Columbus. All signs indicate that players, both in MLS and abroad, are reaching their top form at just the right time.
The Gold Cup draw has the US as the top seed in Group B. The Americans will want to avoid Jamaica (from Pot 2). Otherwise, it should be a relatively manageable opening round for the Americans, as is usually the case at this tournament. With 2022 World Cup Qualifying postponed to the spring and the Concacaf Nations Cup finals moved to June 2021, the US will need to figure out a way between now and then to get together as a unit.
"Both players and staff are disappointed not to be able to get back on the field for the National Team and continue the progress we have made as a group," Berhalter said. "While COVID-19 continues to create challenges for us, we are confident we can find a way forward in the near future that will provide an opportunity to play matches in preparation for the important competitions next year."
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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Photo by John Todd - ISIPhotos.com