The 2011 Gold Cup gets underway on Monday in Arlington, TX with Group A action and appropriately, that means the tournament favorites and home-field advantage, Mexico, will be in action. The tournament may be played in the United States, but Mexico will benefit from overwhelming fan support in every match, all of which will be played in stadiums of at least 60,000 capacity that are expected to be sold out.
Tournament champions have to start somewhere and if CONCACAF Gold Cup favorites Mexico are to win the tournament, it will start with El Salvador. El Tri have hit their stride as they enter the Gold Cup with almost all of their top players in form for the first time in years. That, along with the issues their top challengers, the United States, are having and Mexico is in a good spot to win their second consecutive Gold Cup.
With Mexico being so superior to most of the teams in CONCACAF, they don't need to be at their very best from the start, but they will be challenged some. El Salvador is not a particularly strong team, but they are one of the region's best six or seven so El Tri weren't gifted some team like Grenada they could trounce. Group A also includes Costa Rica, clearly CONCACAF's third-best team and one that will make things tougher on Mexico than you would expect in a Gold Cup group stage.
The story of the friendlies leading up to the Gold Cup for Mexico was the emergence of Giovani dos Santos and Andres Guardado. Long considered two of Mexico's top young players, both have struggled to play well for any extended periods of time. For dos Santos, the question has been desire and discipline as his weight has fluctuated and rumors of excessive partying have dogged him. Guardado hasn't had the same concerns, but he has struggled to stay healthy, making his career full of starts and stops.
Now, both dos Santos and Guardado are healthy, fit and playing well. With both in the attack, El Tri have a deadly pair of players who are quick, skilled and blazing fast. They both played extremely well leading up to the Gold Cup and with Mexico's ability to hold the ball, the pair nearly completes the team's attack with go-to guys to break down opponents in the final third.
The emergence of dos Santos and Guardado is certainly good news for El Tri, but the struggles of the one-hyped young stars have not been the team's biggest problem in recent years. It undoubtedly was a talking point, but Mexico's real problem stretched back all the way to 2005, which is the last time Mexico had a top striker.
Jared Borgetti was Mexico's last top striker and since he age caught up with him six years ago, the team has been without a consistent finisher. They have one now though in Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, who made a name for himself worldwide with his play for Manchester United this season. Now that Mexico can turn their possession and passing into goals with a competent finisher.
It's highly unlikely that El Salvador give Mexico much of a match on Monday night. They have some quality with Rodolfo Zelaya and Eliseo Quintanilla, but they lack the top end talent to compete with a team like Mexico. El Tri will dominate the midfield and let dos Santos, Guardado and Chicharito (if Mexico plays him after missing the recent friendlies while he prepared for the Champions League final with Manchester United) go to work against what should be an overwhelmed El Salvador team.
Unfortunately for those seeking out competitive matches, the other match in the doubleheader won't be much better. Cuba is out of their depth against Costa Rica and will likely get run over, leading to a dominance similar to Mexico's over El Salvador.
What is worth watching is how and who the Ticos play. They suffer from having their best players ideally playing the same position so whether Marco Urena starts, where Celso Borges plays and how Christian Bolanos fits in will be interesting, if nothing else. Getting to watch Bryan Ruiz is always a treat too so there are things worth watching, just probably not the scoreboard.