Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Setting The Gold Cup

J Hutcherson of USSoccerPlayers Newsletter writes about handicapping the US team's route for the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer was probably correct in stressing that the 2011 Gold Cup doesn't contain a Group of Death. Then again, that would've taken as much work as the kind of parity the actual distribution of teams created. It's the CONCACAF problem, a region where there are two very good teams, three or four teams a level down, and then everybody else.

Divide those teams into three groups, and al you have to do is avoid putting the United States and Mexico together or filling one group with all of those second-tier teams. In that regard, mission accomplished for CONCACAF in making sure the distribution was even.

Still, the Gold Cup has shown us that teams that wouldn't be considered second-tier have a habit of making a run. Hello Guadeloupe and Canada, with both of those teams in Group C with the United States. Call if the Group of Slight Inconvenience.

The United States doesn't lose Gold Cup group stage games, a history that carries with it the pressure of expectation. In the months leading up to their showdown with Canada at Ford Field on June 7th, that expectation has to be on the minds of the US coaching staff. That's especially true since Group C is the one most likely to play against form.

Look, this isn't an exercise in building up what looks like a weak group. The FIFA Rankings came out earlier today, and the gulf between the United States and the next highest team in Group C is 49 places. Canada is 84th to the USA's 19th. Guadeloupe isn't a member of FIFA since they're a French territory, but there ELO ranking has them 51 places behind the United States.

Nobody should be looking at Group C (or Mexico's Group A for that matter) and coming up with reasonable scenarios for the United States exiting before the knockout round. That's not the point. It's more about the level of difficulty and the adjustments required game-to-game for the US to keep their reputation in this tournament intact.

Step one is winning the group, something the US has done in every Gold Cup. Step two is expecting a different style of play coming out of the group. Though Panama is slowly building a reputation, they're not the same type of team as the historically stronger Central American squads.

Winning Group C means third place from Groups A or B. It would take a lot for Cuba to make Group A heavily contested. To a lesser extent, the same is true for Grenada in Group B. The expectation should be Groups A and B put their third-place teams into the quarterfinals because both of those groups are the most likely to have their fourth-place team finishing with less than three points.

In the semifinals, the winner of the C1-A3/B3 game gets the winner of the A2/B2 game. With Mexico the favorite in Group A, that should mean Costa Rica playing Honduras or Guatemala in that other quarterfinal. Who emerges won't be a stranger, and once again we're in a setup that keeps the United States and Mexico apart until the final.

As much as CONCACAF has pressed their changes to World Cup Qualifying to benefit the rest of the region, there's no competitive or economic point in wasting a USA - Mexico Gold Cup match-up on an earlier round. For the US, we're talking about navigating what could be a tougher than expected group stage. For everyone else except for Mexico, we're talking about navigating an entire tournament designed to put the two best teams in the Confederation in the final.

Fair enough, since both the US and Mexico earned their reputations as the elite in CONCACAF. It's designed to be this part of the soccer World's marquee moment. It's up to those other 10 teams to play the disruption game.

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