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It seems like the Canadian national team has been on the verge of challenging CONCACAF's established top four for some time now, but always falling just short. In the 2007 Gold Cup, Canada were almost certainly robbed of a chance to beat the United States by bad refereeing decisions. In 2010 World Cup qualifying, Canada was an embarrassment, failing to win a game and suffering a 3-0 shellacking at the hands of Jamaica. There's no question that Canada has the talent to challenge Honduras for the No. 4 spot in CONCACAF right now, but they haven't come close to putting it together.
On Wednesday night, Canada looked impressive in a friendly against Ecuador. The match ended in a 2-2 draw, but the Canadians were superior in the first half when their starting lineup was intact. Dejan Jakovic, the much maligned D.C. United central defender, actually outplayed Christian Benitez for most of the half. If you're unaware, Benitez has an unbelievable goal-scoring record in Mexico, played a season in the English Premier League, and was just purchased by Club America for $10 million. He's a good player. However, news has come out that Jakovic has injured his hamstring and will miss the start of the tournament.
That was impressive, but even more impressive was left winger Josh Simpson, who was probably the best player on the pitch. This wasn't terribly surprising, as Simpson had a very good season for Manisaspor in Turkey and has been good in a Canada shirt for a couple of years now. Along with Dwayne De Rosario, arguably the most accomplished player in MLS history, Simeon Jackson, whose lethal finishing guided Norwich City into the Premier League, Atiba Hutchinson, who plays regularly for PSV Eindhoven, and Will Johnson, whose work rate off the ball is absolutely impeccable, Canada have a very solid core of players.
The biggest shock of the night last night was Terry Dunfield, who scored an absolute screamer of a goal, set up by Simpson. Dunfield is well known as a mean, tough-tackling player who was believed to be on the fringes of the Canada squad before last night. Between his stunning goal and his great crunching tackles in midfield, it will be almost impossible for Stephen Hart to leave him out of his final team.
So this all sounds well and good, right? Well, Canada obviously has some problems. Fortunately for them, none of them actually have to do with a lack of talent, as they are arguably fourth in CONCACAF for raw talent, and certainly in the top eight. There's no reason this team shouldn't be in the knockout stages of the Gold Cup and competing to get into the hex during every cycle. Their biggest problem, currently, is that their best players are caught between two systems.
Simeon Jackson is far and away the quickest forward and best striker that Canada have, and as a result, he should probably be starting every game. He plays his best in a 4-4-2, partnered with a big man. However, Dwayne De Rosario, who should also be playing every game, plays his best in the hole behind a true No. 9. De Rosario's MLS teams have often gone with a wide 4-4-2 diamond that features him behind two strikers and just one man holding things down in the center, but this would be an absolute disaster for Canada against the likes of Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States. Jackson and De Rosario can't both play in their preferred role at the same time for Canada, so sacrifices should be made.
For all the geniuses in the house who just thought of a narrow 4-4-2 diamond as the solution, that requires dropping Josh Simpson to the bench, and he is, at the very worst, Canada's third best attacking player. On current form, I would argue that he's actually the best. Either one of these three players has to be dropped or someone has to play out of position.
On Wednesday, Canada used Jackson as a lone striker. This system had its deficiencies, as Jackson was ineffective at winning 50-50 balls and holding it up to bring his teammates into the play. Ecuador's central defenders are probably the weakest part of their team. Against the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Fransisco Rodriguez, Osman Chavez, Felipe Baloy and Junior Diaz, Jackson will find even less success in this department.
What Canada should to to solve this problem should probably based on their opponents and their opposition's tactical setup. Against Panama, Felipe Baloy will eat Jackson for lunch, while winning the midfield is a possibility. A 4-5-1/4-3-3 setup that drops Jackson to the bench isn't a bad idea. Against the United States, it might be worth it to go for broke and play Jackson with Rob Friend up top and a central midfield of De Rosario and Hutchinson behind them if the US stays in a 4-4-2 with two of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Maurice Edu. Only Stephen Hart knows what the future of his team selections holds, and it will be interesting to watch.
GK Milan Borjan; LB Marcel de Jong, CB Andre Hainault, CB Kevin McKenna, RB Nik Ledgerwood; LM Josh Simpson, CM Atiba Hutchinson, CM Julian de Guzman, RM Will Johnson; CAM Dwayne De Rosario; ST Simeon Jackson
Josh Simpson - The left winger is quick and a fantastic technical player. He should give problems to any right back in CONCACAF
Ali Gerba - The Montreal Impact striker is a balanced player who can come into the game in a variety of situations, either to kill off a game by holding the ball better than Jackson or to chase a game by adding a striker up top
Canada will finish second in their group, setting up a quarterfinal match against Honduras. It will be a tough-fought match, but the Honduras will prevail narrowly in the end. A semifinal run should not be considered out of the question for the Canucks.
After a World Cup, most countries like to begin ushering out the older players who will be too old to play in the next World Cup, while working in young players just ready to make an impact on the international stage. The international calendar doesn't really allow for that though. A year after the World Cup teams are in qualification for their confederation championship tournament or playing in their confederation championship tournament.
In the case of the United States, it is playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and they are the perfect example of a team who could use some time to make the transition from old to young. Whether it is at the back or up top, the U.S. has several areas where they are either too young or too old and it might do them in this summer.
For years now, the U.S. has struggled to find a competent striker. Brian McBride was their last top striker and he was never a prolific goal scorer, just one who did a little bit of everything. Since then, Jozy Altidore has been the Americans' top option, but that is largely because there isn't been another option. Eddie Johnson? Pass. Robbie Findley? Endlines beware. Charlie Davies? Maybe one day again.
Five years later and the U.S. is right where they were after the 2006 World Cup. They are without a striker. Altidore is still hanging around, recent lack of production be damned, but even he is still just 21 years old. With Altidore in a long plateau, the real hope is Juan Agudelo. The 18-year-old has two goals in four national team appearances so far, but he's not a regular starter at his club and for all his exciting potential, he is undoubtedly raw. Unfortunately for the U.S, too young.
At the back, there is the too old issue. For all the problems the U.S. had finishing chances in the last few years, their defense was worse. They gave up the most goals of any World Cup team in CONCACAF qualifying and five more at the World Cup. Even so, the U.S. has many of the same players at the back that they had in the last few years. Carlos Bocanegra is a 32-year-old who is the team's best option at both left back and center back, more a statement on the pool of players than it is Bocanegra himself. Steve Cherundolo is also 32 years old and Oguchi Onyewu is a 29-year-old still recovering from a gruesome knee injury.
The best hope to slide in for the U.S. at the back? Clarence Goodson is playing very well and actually is at a good age, but while he has a decent number of caps, many of those were with or against weakened teams. Tim Ream is also an option, but he falls into the inexperienced, too young category. The same is true of Eric Lichaj, who might be the best option to replace aging players at both fullback positions. Ah, youth.
The midfield is one area of strength for the U.S. and not coincidentally, the one area where the majority of the players are in their prime. Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu have also played internationally and for their European clubs in big matches giving the Americans options in the center. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey remain the two best U.S. players and where there is youth or inexperience, it comes in Alejandro Bedoya and Freddy Adu, both of whom would be used as late subs to provide a spark, sometimes youth can actually be good for.
If the U.S. is to reclaim their crown as CONCACAF champions, they'll have to do it in the midfield. It is undoubtedly the team strength and frankly, the one place where they aren't dogged by the too old and too young problem. A strong midfield might not be enough as the issues at the back and up top might do them in regardless of their work in the center of the pitch.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2)
GK Tim Howard, LB Carlos Bocanegra, CB Oguchi Onyewu, CB Clarence Goodson, RB Steve Cherundolo, LM Landon Donovan, CM Michael Bradley, CM Jermaine Jones, RM Clint Dempsey, ST Juan Agudelo, ST Jozy Altidore
Michael Bradley - If one thing has become clear it is that Bradley will play every match for the U.S. and doing so in the center of the pitch after several months of playing sparingly will make his play most critical to the Americans' success.
Sacha Kljestan - With Benny Feilhaber out, Kljestan will be the best chance the U.S. has to bring in a midfielder who can hold the ball and allow Clint Dempsey to play up top.
The U.S. remains one of the top two teams in CONCACAF and while capable of winning the tournament, there is no doubt that Mexico is the favorite so odds are the U.S. falls in the final to their rivals.
In Gold Cup previews for both Mexico and Costa Rica, the focus was on strikers. For Mexico, it is Javier Hernandez who gets the spotlight and for Costa Rica, it is Bryan Ruiz. They are the top two strikers in CONCACAF, not just performing well for their respective national teams, but doing so for their clubs teams to earn worldwide notice. What is forgotten in all of the talk about CONCACAF's top strikers is the man who should be the easy choice, David Suazo.
For those who have only started following the sport in the last year or two, you are forgiven for not knowing the game. After all, he has barely played at all in that time, but it wasn't too long before that when Suazo was easily the top striker in CONCACAF. He was devastating, with lighting pace, an uncanny ability to find space and calm finishing, Suazo was gaining a reputation as top striker, in CONCACAF or elsewhere.
Suazo's emergence was sensational for club and country. He came up with the Honduran team at the tail end of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and scored a couple goals, then in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup he scored five more. Suazo was getting the job done for his club too, scoring 19 goals to get Cagliari promoted to Serie A, then scoring 40 goals in a two-year span in Italy's top tier. Inter Milan made a move to bring him in and essentially confirmed what observers already knew. Suazo was a top striker.
Strikers can only be good when they can play though and Suazo began to have issues with that playing part. He had one solid season for Inter, but was then loaned to Benfica and the injuries began to hit. One injury sidelined him. Another injury sidelined him. He aggravated one of his injuries and everything was piling up for him.
This string of injuries came at the worst of times for Honduras. They were building a very good team. With Wilson Palacios in the center of the pitch, Maynor Figueroa flying forward from the back and a couple accomplished strikers in the region up top to partner Suazo in Carlos Pavon and Carlo Costly, Honduras had a lot to be excited about. Most of their excitement was because of Suazo though. CONCACAF's top striker and the most deadly player in the region was the man the team was built around, then he was gone.
The injuries sidelined Suazo and Honduras was not the same. They were good. Make no mistake about that and Suazo played sometimes, but he was not the same player. Honduras qualified for the 2010 World Cup, the first time they had qualified for the tournament since 1982, but it wasn't quite as good as it could have been. If any team was going to challenge CONCACAF's top two of Mexico and the United States, it was going to be Honduras. It was going to be a Honduras with Suazo, but for all intensive purposes he was gone.
Now Honduras finds themselves chasing again. No, not chasing Mexico and the U.S. That is a role they were used to, but they are now chasing Costa Rica. Pavon's age has caught up with him and with George Welcome not on the team, the options up top aren't so dangerous. Palacios, who was in the best form of his life just 12 months ago, is now in a funk and struggling to get matches.
What was once CONCACAF's top challenger is now falling. They don't have the region's best player anymore and their next best player is off form. What was supposed to be the golden age of Honduran football, built around the great Suazo, has been ruined by Lady Luck.
GK Noel Valladares, LB Amilio Izaguirre, CB Victor Bernardez, CB Osman Chavez, RB Mauricio Sabillon , LM Roger Espinoza, CM Wilson Palacios, CM Hendry Thomas, RM Ramon Nunez, ST Jerry Bengston, ST Carlo Costly
Carlo Costly - Without much established help up top, Costly will be asked to carry the Honduran attack, something he is capable of doing, but has never been asked to do before.
Walter Martinez - It is possible that Martinez starts, but if he comes off of the bench he becomes their best choice for a spark in the attack.
Honduras is still the fourth-best team in CONCACAF, but they are a ways off of third-best Costa Rica so while they win a weak Group B, they go down weakly to the U.S. in the semifinals.
The United States and Mexico are the "big two" in CONCACAF and it is not hard to imagine why. They have played each other in both of the last two Gold Cup finals, have by far the highest FIFA ranking of any team in the region and are the only ones to regularly compete with the top teams in the world on big stages. It is hard to fathom the two rivals not playing each other in this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup final on June 25 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, but if they don't it will likely be because Costa Rica crashed their party.
It is not a surprise that the Ticos are the top challenger to the top two in CONCACAF. They have qualified for three of the last six World Cups and have reached the knockout stages of the Gold Cup in each of the last six tournaments. As far as non-Mexico, non-U.S. teams go in the region, Costa Rica is as accomplished as any, but it is not history that makes them a dangerous team
To the surprise of many, players and not history books are what make teams dangerous and the Ticos have a few worth keeping an eye on. One of those few is even worth keeping two eyes on and he goes by the name of Bryan Ruiz.
Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is a mighty fine striker who gets plenty of publicity now that he plays for Manchester United. Landon Donovan is the most famous player the U.S. has, but he's not really a striker. David Suazo used to be the top striker in CONCACAF, but the injury bug bit him and then bit him again and again. So who is the best striker in CONCACAF now? It may very well be Ruiz.
The 25-year-old plays his club ball at Twente and helped them finish second this season, a year after helping them win the title with 24 goals. His play has drawn the attention of several clubs in Europe's top leagues and his time at Twente may be dwindling, but his time in the spotlight certainly will not.
It's tough to forget about a big, strong striker who physically punishes defenders. You know, a striker that can finish with his head, but also run by defenders and has an abundance of skill on the ball to both finish calmly and torture defenders that he runs at. All of that makes for a dandy of a striker, which Ruiz is.
Best about Ruiz, at least when it comes to discussing his role with Costa Rica, is his ability to create goals from nothing. Stranded alone up top without any help and a swarming defense, Ruiz has shown that he can create space and get a shot away. Besides that being a fantastic skill in its own right, it is especially fantastic to Costa Rica. Assuming they finish behind Mexico in Group A, the Ticos will have to defeat Mexico in the semifinals if they are to make the finals and a Cinderella run. Defeating Mexico will likely take a few moments of magic not in the run of play, moments Ruiz can create.
The Ticos do have a problem though. Several of their top players play the same position and finding a way to get their best players on the same pitch is tough.
Marco Urena is a sensational young player, but playing him in an attacking midfield role requires the Ticos to drop Celso Borges deeper on the pitch. That's not really a problem for Borges. He can play nearly anywhere and do it well, something CONCACAF is likely to learn this summer, but he plays on the right side. That happens to be the same place in the midfield that Christian Bolanos plays, another of the Ticos better players. Odds are the talented Urena ends up starting on the bench, meaning that Costa Rica can't get their 11 best players on the field at once.
Of course, in situations like this it is nearly impossible to figure out exactly how Costa Rica will play. How do they get their best players on the pitch? Not easily and that is the job for head coach Ricardo La Volpe. It is a situation that could lead to several different lineups throughout the tournament, which would be fine so long as La Volpe can figure out the most effective approach by the time the knockout stages come around. If he can, led by Ruiz and an underrated Borges, Costa Rica might have an upset in them.
GK Keylor Navas, LB Bryan Oviedo, CB Junior Diaz, CB Jhonny Acosta, RB Oscar Duarte, LM Dennis Marshall, CM David Guzman, RM Christian Bolanos, CAM Celso Borges, ST Alvaro Saborio ST Bryan Ruiz
Alvaro Saborio - For all the talk about Ruiz, Saborio led the Ticos in scoring during World Cup qualifying and with all the attention on Ruiz, Saborio will find chances to score.
Marco Urena - The 21-year-old attacker may be short on experience, but he is amazingly skilled and can unlock a tired defense late in matches.
Getting past Mexico in group play will be tough and will likely set them up for a rematch with El Tri in the semifinals, where they will likely fall again, but not before putting a scare in the tournament favorites.
The 2009 Gold Cup was a bit of an odd tournament, with the United States sending what amounted to a B- side and Mexico sending what was essentially a B+ side. Since El Tri and the USMNT are fairly even when both are at their best, with Mexico having more depth at their disposal, it should come as no surprise that Mexico destroyed the United States in that final. This season, both teams bring their best, and it should be a different story. There are all kinds of angles one can take when writing about this El Tri squad, but most of the stories have only been focused on one: Chicharito.
Javier Hernandez went to the 2010 World Cup and performed well after a great campaign with Chivas de Guadalajara, ahead of his move to Manchester United. This eased the concerns of many that he wasn't ready for the big stage, but no one could have possibly predicted the season that he would have with the Red Devils. He's performed extremely well whenever he's put on a Mexico shirt since, and it's been just as much relief as it has been excitement for the Mexico fans.
For years, after Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco saw their careers head south, Mexico had a bit of a revolving door of mediocre players at the striker position. The likes of Guillermo Franco, Miguel Sabah, Adolfo Bautista, Omar Bravo, Kikin Fonseca, and so on never lived up to the pedigrees of their legendary predecessors. Now, Mexico has a player whose potential and circumstances may lead him past the accomplishments of Borgetti. In the eyes of many, Hernandez is the next Hugo Sanchez.
It's a giant leap of faith to compare anyone who has only played consistently at a high level for two seasons to Sanchez, but the Chicharito hype machine is very much in motion, and stopping it is going to be almost impossible. Even if the hype is much too overblown, Hernandez is the best center forward to play for Mexico for a long time. Not since the 2006 World Cup qualifying cycle have they had a player who was anywhere near his form and quality, and that alone makes Mexico the Gold Cup favorites.
Though the big story is Chicharito, much of the attack will come from Mexico's wings, where they finally have two in-form and fit starters nailed down. It was a tough campaign in the English Premier League for Pablo Barrera at West Ham, bu he's been brilliant every time he's worn a Mexico shirt since the World Cup, and he has the right wing position locked down. On the other flank, Andres Guardado has always been first choice when healthy, but that hasn't always been the case. Currently, he's fit and playing well, but he was not able to help his club Deportivo La Coruña avoid relegation, just like Barrera and West Ham. Both players are in form for Mexico, but both will likely be finding new club teams after the tournament concludes.
The No. 10 spot in Mexico's favored 4-2-3-1 setup is a peculiar one, with Sinha currently holding down the role. Sinha is 35 years old and a personal favorite of manager Jose Manuel 'Chepo' de la Torre, but he can't be more than a one tournament stopgap at the spot. The heir apparent has been Giovani Dos Santos for about seven years now, but he has not yet become the star he was supposed to be. He played brilliantly on loan at Racing Santander during the second half of the season, scoring five goals and keeping them in La Liga, so many feel he is finally turning a corner. He came on as a substitute in Mexico's recent friendly against Ecuador and looked very sharp.
In the center of midfield, Mexico plays a couple of great veterans in Israel Castro and Gerardo Torrado. If the predicted final between the United States and Mexico takes place, the best battle will probably be in the center of midfield, where the United States are arguably stronger than anywhere else on the pitch. Against everyone who isn't the United States, Torrado and Castro should control the middle, though Honduras will give them a serious run for their money.
The back line is without a doubt the most accomplished on the continent, and it's probably where the biggest difference between Mexico and their rivals lies. El Tri has enough quality players to make the best back four in the tournament twice over, and that should be the real reason they're the favorites, not Chicharito.
GK Guillermo Ochoa; LB Carlos Salcido, CB Fransisco Javier Rodriguez, CB Rafael Marquez, RB Ricardo Osorio; CM Israel Castro, CM Gerardo Torrado; LM Andres Guardado, CAM Sinha, RM Pablo Barrera; ST Javier Hernandez
Gerardo Torrado - Sinha may be the No. 10, but Torrado is the engine that makes Mexico run
Giovani Dos Santos, Jesus Zavala - Gio will be the primary attacking option off the bench, while Zavala is a versatile midfielder that Chepo de la Torre might use to close out tight games.
Champions - The United States and Costa Rica have the ability to challenge Mexico and take their crown for sure, but Mexico are still the slight favorites to win this competition.
Take one look at the Gold Cup rosters and one thing is apparent: No league will showcase more players than MLS. The league has 32 players that occupy spots on 10 of the 12 teams' rosters.
MLS's influence on Gold Cup roster is spread throughout MLS as well. Just three MLS teams do not have any players on Gold Cup rosters.
The only other organization that even comes close to being this heavily represented is the English Football Association, which has 25 players on seven different teams. But even that needs some explanation. While MLS is an 18-team, closed league, those English players come from leagues at five different levels of the pyramid, and as low as the eighth division. In more of an apples-to-apples comparison, just 12 come from the top-flight English Premier League.
Even teams that primarily take players from their domestic league pale in comparison. Cuba only took domestic players, but their league didn't send any non-Cubans to the competition. Guatemala sent 20 players from their domestic league, but just two who played elsewhere.
Discounting players that compete in their countries' domestic leagues, MLS still sent 19 players. Aside from the EPL and MLS, no other top-division league sent more than France's four non-domestic league players. Jamaica, in fact, has more MLS players (9) than even the United States (7) or Canada (6).
The Mexican Primera is widely considered to be the best league in CONCACAF, but they have players on just four different teams and 18 players overall. That total is tied for the fewest they've sent to the Gold Cup during MLS's existence and is an 11-player decrease from 2009.
MLS may still have a way to go before catching Mexico in more meaningful metrics, but clearly the league is becoming a viable place for players around the region to make a living.
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