By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 16, 2021) US Soccer Players – With Thursday’s second match night of group B in the books, we’re now halfway through the 2021 Gold Cup round-robin stage. The outlines of the knockout bracket are taking enough shape for some general observations can be made about the latest edition of Concacaf’s top tournament. Here’s four.
Issues for Cinderella teams
It’s a discussion older than the tournament itself. What to do about the sharks-and-minnows nature of the region and the big gap it creates between the top-performing nations and the rest? For decades the answer was to make it difficult for Cinderellas to qualify for the main event. Lately, we’ve seen a more inclusive approach with more matches to try and help the smaller countries catch up.
So a regional championship that was once as small as five participants now has 16 teams in it, three to four of which are selected via a qualifying event immediately beforehand. A field of 16 has an elegant symmetry about it, eliminating the need to allow 3rd-placed finishers into the knockout bracket. It also drops one or two perceived small fry into each group.
It’s that perception that we already see not necessarily playing out on the field. Yes, there have been some one-sided scorelines, though there are some deceiving results in there too. Canada had to rally from an early deficit against Martinique. Honduras wasn’t exactly four goals superior to Grenada in the run of play of their 4-0 match. Haiti has been tenacious despite political violence back home and an outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests in their camp.
What’s discouraging is that every sign of a smaller nation closing the gap seems to be accompanied by more reminders of their institutional disadvantages. COVID cases knocked Curacao out of the Gold Cup completely. Haiti clearly has fewer resources with which to battle their off-field challenges. Grenada only had a few days of preparation with their entire roster together for training.
Making it to the Gold Cup should be a difference-maker for these national teams, not a burden. Certainly, we’re in a unique circumstance right now, but the focus has to be on figuring out reasonable ways to improve soccer in the region.
Qatar offers a challenge
The decision to invite a guest team works against that push for more opportunity in the region, at least in theory. Guest teams are nothing new for this tournament, but Concacaf doesn’t need to add teams to get to a reasonable field like CONMEBOL’s Copa America. Qatar and Australia were supposed to play at last month’s Copa America, with Qatar needing competitive games in place of qualifiers.
If you prefer to find the proof in the proverbial pudding, Qatar has already treated us to possibly the best game of the round so far. Their storm-delayed 3-3 thriller against Panama in Houston was a joy to watch and hinted that the Crimson bring some useful qualities to the table. However the rest of their tournament plays out, the addition of a skillful team from a different part of the world could help broaden the view of those who face them.
That’s important for getting those same smaller countries out of the regional bubble. It’s another factor Concacaf pointed to when replacing friendlies with Nations League games that count. There has to be more to play for, especially with teams that otherwise might sit out international windows.
Persistent drama around Mexico
Many pundits tabbed defending champs El Tri as favorites for this year’s edition. Playing into that was US coach Gregg Berhalter’s decision to give some of his top players a midsummer break before their European club seasons. So far, what’s happening with Mexico is a variety of issues they have no choice but to address.
On the field, an out-of-form Trinidad & Tobago held Mexico to a scoreless draw in their opener. That game included the referee temporarily halting the action over Mexico supporters’ use of a homophobic chant on opposing goal kicks and free kicks. Specific in-stadium protocols created to warn, dissuade, and eventually punish such incidents seem to be having only a modest effect. Mexico is already facing two games behind closed doors following the Gold Cup. It’s now on Concacaf and FIFA to maintain the resolve that their own system requires.
Guatemala, a last-minute replacement for Curacao, provided stiff resistance before eventually falling 3-0 to Mexico at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. That result also came with controversy. El Tri’s outstanding performer was Argentine-born Rogelio Funes Mori, recently naturalized and a Liga MX player since 2015. He’s already an important piece for coach Tata Martino’s near-term priorities, but some can’t get past Mexico using a naturalized player.
“The controversies won’t end. The comparisons will be infinite,” Martino said after the Guatemala win. “There are those who are against the naturalization of footballers. Based on the questions that I’m asked, I don’t see an end to this.”
Meanwhile, is Martino himself on the hot seat? Would Mexican really dismiss him on the eve of World Cup qualifying? It’s hard to be sure of anything with their opaque federation.
The USMNT close out group play against resurgent neighbors Canada in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon (5pm ET – FOX). Though no one wants to downplay games on the schedule, this was the expected outcome once Concacaf announced the groups. With both already in the quarterfinals, seeding takes on significant importance in the group B finale.
That’s because the final Group B standings will determine which side of the knockout bracket they drop into. If the results of the next few days stay the same, the 2nd-place finisher would be looking at win-or-else matches with Honduras, then Mexico to reach the tournament final, while 1st place would seem to offer a somewhat less daunting path.
Thanks to the goals scored tiebreaker Canada only needs a draw on Sunday. The US must win in order to claim the top spot. Les Rouges ended a 34-year winless streak against the USMNT with their 2-0 Nations League win in Toronto in October 2019, and sound bullish on their chances for this weekend and beyond.
“Our first objective was top of the group, not because we’re scared of any teams in the quarterfinals, just because we wanted to get out of this group stage with three wins to make a good impression and to tell the teams that we’re a serious team and want to go all the way through,” Canada and CF Montreal midfielder Samuel Piette said on Thursday. “So we’re not going for a tie, or anything else than a win against the US.”
For their part, the USMNT pushed for and very nearly got the late flurry of goals against Martinique that would have canceled out Canada’s tiebreaker advantage. A win on Sunday would quiet those noisy neighbors to the north a bit, and the schedule offers a week’s rest before the knockout stage begins.
“We’re still in good position to get first in the group, and that’s the goal that we’re setting,” USMNT midfielder Cristian Roldan said following the win over Martinique.
More from Charles Boehm:
- EURO 2020, the Copa America, and the concept of major tournaments
- Five questions about the USMNT’s 2021 Gold Cup campaign
- MLS in the lower divisions
- The Concacaf Octagonal adds two interesting teams
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com