Usual suspects Mexico, U.S. and Costa Rica big favorites in Gold Cup
The 2017 Gold Cup is just days away from kicking off, so the time has arrived to make fearless predictions about what will go down in Groups A, B and C.
1. Costa Rica -- Despite the absence of Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Costa Rica still boast a very strong squad. Among the names are Sporting Lisbon attacking duo Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, plus MLSers Rodney Wallace (New York City FC) and Johan Venegas (Minnesota United). They are sturdy in defense as well, with European-based players like Bryan Oviedo of Sunderland and Giancarlo Gonzalez of Bologna. The Ticos, who have never won the Gold Cup, should handle things to finish atop the group.
2. Honduras -- While Honduras are struggling in World Cup qualifying -- currently fifth in the Hexagonal -- they took top honors earlier this year at the Copa Centroamericana. The Catrachos will be buoyed by the Houston Dynamo attacking pairing of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis, and will also have the benefit in playing in the Honduras-friendly environments of Frisco and Houston, Texas to close out the group.
3. Canada -- For Canada, it will be imperative to win by a wide margin in their opener against French Guiana should they want to reach the knockout round. Canada round out the group against Honduras and their recent history of high-stakes games against the Central Americans is not good. Plus, they'll be battling the Texas heat with games in Frisco and Houston. With Cyle Larin omitted from the squad, Tosaint Ricketts will get his chance to stand out.
4. French Guiana -- In their first ever Gold Cup appearance, getting a result in any of their three matches would be a positive for French Guiana. They will be intriguing to watch, especially with former Chelsea man Florent Malouda in the mix. With a squad made up of a lot of players from France's lower divisions, they performed well in last week's Caribbean Cup, losing to Jamaica on penalties in the semifinals. Goalkeeper Donovan Leon is considered one of the best stoppers in the Caribbean.
1. United States -- The U.S. should roll to a first-place finish, even with a B team picked for this tournament. The defense is strong and experienced, with Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez leading the way, while a midfield consisting of players like Dax McCarty, Kellyn Acosta and Alejandro Bedoya should power the Yanks to top spot in the group. For U.S. fans, the focus of the group stage will fall on the forward trio of Juan Agudelo, Dom Dwyer and Jordan Morris to put on their scoring boots against weaker competition prior to the knockout rounds.
2. Panama -- Even though veterans like forward Blas Perez and midfielder Roman Torres are sitting this one out, Panama still have plenty to handle Nicaragua and Martinique and reach the quarterfinals. There is loads of experience in midfield with Gabriel Gomez and Anibal Godoy, while Abdiel Arroyo and Ismael Diaz are two forwards full of promise who have yet to have a breakout with the Canaleros. It could come here.
3. Martinique -- The islanders acquitted themselves well in the recently completed Caribbean Cup, losing 2-1 in the semifinals to eventual champions Curacao. While Martinique are armed with several players in France's Ligue 2, they have a nagging tendency to give up soft goals. Their opener against Nicaragua will be pivotal to their quarterfinal hopes.
4. Nicaragua -- Playing in just their second Gold Cup, Nicaragua are going in with a nothing-to-lose attitude. Led by Juan Barrera, who scored a hat trick in Nicaragua's epic 3-0 win over Haiti in the return leg of the Gold Cup playoff that earned the Pinoleros a 4-3 win on aggregate. Nicaragua head coach Henry Duarte says that his team are not going to the Gold Cup to just sit back and defend. It'll be fun to watch them attack, but it will likely result in some lopsided losses.
1. Mexico -- Hands down the favorite to win this group, despite using a fairly inexperienced squad at the international level. Nevertheless, there is loads of talent from back to front. Moises Munoz and Jesus Corona are each experienced hands in goal, while Hugo Ayala will provide good veteran leadership in defense for budding stars, like Monterrey's Cesar Montes (20). Opportunity also abounds for midfielders Orbelin Pineda, Erick Gutierrez and Jesus Gallardo to begin stating their case for World Cup roster consideration. Up front, a lot of the scoring burden will fall on late addition Erick "Cubo" Torres who replaced injured Alan Pulido on the roster. There are a lot of hungry, young players here, interspersed with some savvy veterans, giving Mexico a team that could prove to be dynamite.
2. Jamaica -- After El Tri, there is a significant drop off in the group, starting with 2015 finalists Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz are in the midst of a rebuilding process, with the large majority of the squad either hailing from MLS/USL clubs or Jamaica's Red Stripe Premier League. The fact that the defense will consist of experienced MLS players like Jermaine Taylor, Alvas Powell and Kemar Lawrence, will give comfort to a midfield and attack that is still wet behind the ears internationally, with the exception, of course, of the ageless Jermaine Johnson. The 37-year-old continues to defy the odds, scoring 16 goals in 2016-17.
3. Curacao -- Curacao will feel rightly slighted upon seeing this group prediction, mainly because they defeated Jamaica 2-1 in the final of the Caribbean Cup last week. But while this is Jamaica's 10th Gold Cup appearance, this is Curacao's maiden voyage in the regional tournament. They should not be taken lightly though. This is a squad that has two players with Premier League experience -- Cuco Martina (Southampton) and Leandro Bacuna (Aston Villa). Elson Hooi, the hero of the Caribbean Cup final with a brace, is one to watch in midfield, while the forward trio of Rangelo Janga, Felitciano Zschusschen and Gino van Kessel will be relied upon to supply goals.
4. El Salvador -- The Cuscatlecos are going to be a difficult opponent for all the teams in this group, including Mexico. Coach Eduardo Lara has assembled a pretty experienced team, including his trio of New York Cosmos, midfielders Andres Flores and Richard Menjivar, and forward Irvin Herrera. El Salvador are always strong in possession, and an extra emphasis on working in small spaces has been one of the focuses in the El Salvador camp. Nevertheless, the two Caribbean teams should have enough of an advantage in the physical and aerial game to finish ahead of the Central Americans.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .