Copa America and Euro 2020 will draw to a close this weekend, but fret not, dear soccer fans: the Gold Cup kicks off on Saturday night when El Salvador takes on Curacao. So with the cream rising to the top in South America and Europe, ESPN asked its North American-based writers to break down what to expect from CONCACAF’s continental contest.
Jeff Carlisle, Gus Elvin, Kyle Bonagura and Eric Gomez look at four groups of the 2021 Gold Cup, detailing the favorites, the dark horses and the players to keep your eye on.
Group A: Mexico, El Salvador, Curacao, Trinidad & Tobago
Expectations for the favorite: Mexico is the hands-down favorite to win it all. After losing the CONCACAF Nations League final to the U.S. earlier this summer, El Tri boss Gerardo Martino was motivated enough to present an almost-full-strength squad despite a heavy workload this summer that includes the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and the Olympics for his U23 side. There is an unintended consequence to Martino selecting most of his top players against a somewhat-weakened field.
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If Mexico fails to win this tournament, the Argentine manager will unequivocally be on the hot seat entering qualifying for Qatar 2022, where one bad result can ruin a whole generation of talent.
Can anyone knock off the favorite? Mexico has a history of playing down to CONCACAF opposition when it is expected to win and even blow some teams out. It will be very interesting to see El Tri face a team like Curacao, whom they’ve faced only twice since 1982. In their meeting at the 2017 Gold Cup, the Caribbean side held Mexico to a one-goal advantage for 90 minutes before Edson Alvarez made it 2-0 in injury time. Granted, that Mexican side was not nearly as star-studded as this iteration.
El Tri will also face the usual heavy challenges from more-familiar foes in Trinidad and Tobago and El Salvador, although neither side has had much luck against Mexico in any capacity in recent years.
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Who will be Group MVP? All eyes will be on Mexico’s Hirving Lozano to put his stamp on this tournament from the very beginning. The Napoli winger has emerged as El Tri’s most dangerous player since Raul Jimenez’s injury resulted in a prolonged absence from the national team. Whether he’s deployed in a false nine role or storms in off the wing, “Chucky” will likely lead his squad’s attack throughout.
Who will be the group’s breakout star? After a prolonged debate as to whether he’d be able to represent Mexico in the first place, striker Rogelio Funes Mori made an instant impact with El Tri, scoring in his debut against Nigeria earlier in July. The Monterrey frontman has been one of Liga MX’s top scorers in the past decade, and at 30 years old, he’s still capable of making a mark on this tournament. — Eric Gomez
Expectations for the favorite: United States manager Gregg Berhalter has gone to great lengths to say that his Gold Cup roster isn’t a B-team, but with many of his best players being given a rest after long club seasons, that is essentially what it is. And yet, the USMNT remains the favorite to come out on top in Group B.
Berhalter has also made it clear that his goal is to win the tournament. Given the strength of Mexico’s team, there’s a chance that might not come to pass, but this group of players will be extremely motivated to show that they should be included when the team reconvenes for World Cup qualifying in September. The backline is a bit thin, but in Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson, there’s enough quality to get the job done.
Further up the pitch, Sebastian Lletget is likely to lead the midfield, while Daryl Dike has a massive opportunity to make a strong case that he should be the starting striker heading into World Cup qualifying. For this group, a spot in the final is the minimum that should be expected.
Can anyone knock off the favorite? Most definitely. Canada is an up-and-coming soccer nation, and they fired a shot across the USMNT’s bow during the CONCACAF Nations League, defeating their neighbors 2-0 during the group stage. While star forward Jonathan David wasn’t included on this roster, the likes of Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies, Besiktas’ Cyle Larin and newly committed forward Ayo Akinola should provide plenty of skill and attacking punch. Houston midfielder Tyler Pasher is also in excellent form at the moment.
There are questions about Canada’s backline, but the Reds should progress out of the group and are capable of nipping the top spot. That said, Haiti has given Canada trouble in the past — it prevailed against the Reds 3-2 in a 2019 quarterfinal — and could pull an upset to snag second in the group. Martinique likely won’t have enough to advance here despite being competitive in previous Gold Cup appearances.
Could the U.S. win the Gold Cup with a B-team? Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Who will be Group MVP? This usually goes to a forward, so Dike and Larin are the first names that come to mind. The Haitian tandem of Duckens Nazon and Frantzdy Pierrot — who scored seven goals between them during the preliminary round — could also dazzle.
Who will be the group’s breakout star? Much has been predicted of U.S. midfielder Gianluca Busio. If given time to shine, he could emerge as the latest young U.S. player to make a name for himself. The aforementioned Pasher has been tearing it up in MLS, with three goals and as many assists in eight matches this season: He’s also one to watch. — Jeff Carlisle
Expectations for the favorite: By default, Costa Rica will enter as the favorite in Group C, but they’ll do so despite riding an 11-match winless streak that dates back to November 2019. In the CONCACAF Nations League last month, the Ticos lost on penalties twice — to Mexico in the semifinal and Honduras in the third-place match — before a 4-0 loss to the United States ultimately cost manager Ronald Gonzalez his job.
A run to the Gold Cup semifinal is reasonable, and anything beyond that would require an improvement of recent form.
Can anyone knock off the favorite? Jamaica, which has reached two of the past three Gold Cup finals and the semifinal in 2019, could just as well be considered the favorite ahead of Costa Rica. A recent infusion of English-born players has given the Reggae Boyz more squad depth, however their Gold Cup roster notably won’t feature an international debut for West Ham United forward Michail Antonio and doesn’t include Swansea City’s Jamal Lowe or Watford’s Andre Gray, both of whom debut in March.
Who will be Group MVP? Costa Rica forward Joel Campbell should be a consistent threat, while Jamaica’s Shamar Nicholson, who plays for Royal Charleroi SC in Belgium, is also a dangerous attacker.
Who will be the group’s breakout star? Suriname’s Nigel Hasselbaink, who scored back-to-back hat tricks in World Cup qualifying, has a good opportunity to raise his profile within CONCACAF. — Kyle Bonagura
Group D: Honduras, Panama, Grenada, Qatar
Expectations for the favorite: Ranked 67th in the FIFA rankings, Honduras will be expected to top a Group D that also contains Panama, Grenada and guests Qatar. With an experienced defense led by 38-year-old Maynor Figueroa, and the always dangerous Alberth Elis in attack, Los Catrachos not only should win the group but also are more than capable of knocking off one of the big dogs in the knockout rounds, as they almost did against the United States in the Nations League semifinals.
Can anyone knock off the favorite? While Honduras is favored, Group D is the most wide-open group, with Panama and Qatar both strong challengers. A battle-tested Panama features five players who have compiled more than 90 caps, led by 2018 World Cup veterans Anibal Godoy and Gabriel Torres, while Qatar, a relative unknown to CONCACAF sides, was the surprising winner of the 2019 Asian Cup, and will be keen to make the most of these competitive games leading up to hosting the World Cup in 17 months’ time.
Who will be Group MVP? Elis. One of the most dynamic attackers in all of CONCACAF, “La Pantera” is fresh off a strong debut season in Portugal with Boavista and will be tasked with shouldering the attacking load for Honduras. The good news for Honduras is that Elis is capable of doing just that, as his tremendous pace and dribbling skills make him a constant threat both on the counter and in one-vs-one situations with defenders.
Who will be the group’s breakout star? Qatar is the mystery outfit given it’s a guest participant, but keep an eye on young forwards Akram Afif and Almoez Ali. Afif, 24, was named Asian Footballer of the Year in 2019; he has been recognized as the Qatar Stars League Player of the Year each of the past two seasons while playing under Xavi at Al Sadd. Meanwhile, Ali, who was born in Sudan and is also just 24, has scored 30 goals in 62 games for the national team, including nine at the 2019 Asian Cup to win MVP.
While both players have already had spells in Europe — Afif in Spain and Belgium, and Ali in Austria and Spain — both could parlay strong showings at the Gold Cup into summer transfers. — Gus Elvin