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 By Matt Pentz

W2W4: U.S. and Mexico to advance from Gold Cup quarterfinals

The Gold Cup's 12-team field has been cut down to the quarterfinals; it is now the win-or-go-home thrills of the knockout stage.

But which teams will take the next step toward the July 26 final in Santa Clara, California? Here's what to watch for.

Costa Rica vs. Panama, Wednesday (6 p.m. ET -- Philadelphia)

We start with the most intriguing match. Both have played reasonably well -- each can feel aggrieved to have drawn the other so early in the knockout rounds -- but karma may be paying Costa Rica back for its easy group. Outside of the hot-tempered opener against Honduras, Costa Rica hardly had to break a sweat on its way to a first-place finish in Group A.

Like the U.S. and Mexico, Costa Rica left some of its biggest stars off the roster (like Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas), but unlike those other regional heavyweights, Los Ticos haven't looked any worse for their high-profile absences. Being able to bring a red-hot Rodney Wallace off your B-team bench speaks well to one's depth.

Panama, meanwhile, was just minutes away from topping Group B before American defender Matt Miazga scored late against Nicaragua. Los Canaleros haven't been perfect, but as the U.S. learned in the group-stage opener, this is a resilient squad and a tough out.

Prediction: Costa Rica 1-0 Panama

United States vs. El Salvador, Wednesday (9 p.m. ET -- Philadelphia)

Despite an underwhelming performance to this point, the United States has been rewarded with perhaps the tamest opponent left. The Americans needed to scramble to avoid embarrassment against Martinique -- which will be missed -- and labored much more than anticipated to score the three goals necessary vs. Nicaragua to win Group B.

Yet reinforcements like veterans Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley are on the way. And even the JV squad would have fancied its chances against the Salvadorans.

El Salvador has just about played to type by sneaking into the quarterfinals. It lost to Mexico, beat Curacao and fought Jamaica to a draw. With backs against the wall headed into the Jamaica match, this solid, unspectacular crew at least proved that it isn't a pushover. Still, there's a reason El Salvador is currently 103rd in the FIFA rankings. Barring a disaster, the U.S. should move on comfortably.

Prediction: United States 3-1 El Salvador

Jamaica vs. Canada, Thursday (7.30 p.m. ET -- Glendale, Ariz.)

Based on recent history, this should be an easy one to call. The Reggae Boyz reached the Gold Cup final the last time around, while Canada hasn't advanced past this point in a decade.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the more this looks like a golden opportunity for the Canadians. Jamaica is vulnerable. It was disciplined and organized in holding Mexico to a dour scoreless draw but otherwise hasn't shown much. The team has been on a gradual slide for a while now, no longer possessing the spark of the group that so memorably stunned the U.S. in the 2015 semis.

For Canada, meanwhile, the future is as bright as it's been in a long time. Their 16-year-old sensation Alphonso Davies has risen to the occasion in his first big international tournament and is currently tied for the Golden Boot with three goals; Cyle Larin, who was called up for the knockout rounds ahead of Thursday's match, is another sturdy young building block.

Canada betrayed some nerves in the group-stage finale against Honduras, but it earned its quarterfinal place. This squad has genuine promise and is playing well.

Prediction: Canada 2-1 Jamaica (extra time)

Mexico vs. Honduras, Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET -- Glendale, Ariz.)

Has there ever been a quarterfinalist in any tournament that has done less to earn its place than these Hondurans?

To say Honduras has underwhelmed would be an understatement. Tabbed by many as the potential sleeper in this field, Los Catrachos have yet to score a goal in 270 minutes of action. Their vaunted counterattack has faltered.

Yet thanks to French Guiana's willfully accepting a forfeit in exchange for starting ineligible attacker Florent Malouda in their second group-stage match, Honduras advanced on the back of its "3-0 win" that was actually a scoreless draw. Take that away and Honduras picked up just two points from three games.

Mexico has looked much like you'd expect from a team that left most of its best players at home to enjoy their summer vacations. With the possible exception of the 3-1 win against El Salvador, El Tri has neither impressed nor especially underwhelmed. But it should have more than enough to overcome a Honduras team still trying to convert its legitimate attacking talent into a more formidable foe.

Prediction: Mexico 2-0 Honduras

Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.

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