Gold Cup Group A preview: Canada, Martinique, Mexico, Panama
Head coach: Colin Miller (Canada)
MLS connections: Nana Attakora (San Jose), Kyle Bekker (Toronto FC), Doneil Henry (Toronto FC), Will Johnson (Portland), Ashtone Morgan (Toronto FC), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC), Russell Teibert (Vancouver), Simon Thomas (Vancouver)
Previous Gold Cup appearances: 10; champions in 2000
Call this for what it is: a massive rebuilding project. Canada’s overhaul began the second they were unceremoniously dumped from World Cup qualifying last October and continues through this tournament, the first official run-out for interim coach Miller. Youth reigns across this squad: A dozen players are younger than 25, and nine of them have five caps or fewer. But there are bright spots to get excited about, especially Teibert and Osorio, as well as 2011 U-17 World Cup veterans Samuel Piette and Keven Aleman. And it’ll be fun to see how Timbers skipper Johnson does at sporting the armband at this level. But let’s be clear: It’s going to be a steep learning curve for this young team, as their uninspiring draw with a PDL side in a warm-up game made clear. Mexico and Panama are slightly better than the Ventura County Fusion.
Head coach: Patrick Cavelan (Martinique)
MLS connections: Frédéric Piquionne (Portland)
Previous Gold Cup appearances: 3; quarterfinalists in 2000
Remember Guadeloupe in 2011? Les Matinino are this edition’s version. The French overseas department qualified for the Gold Cup – the biggest competition they’re eligible for – for the first time in 10 years thanks to a semifinal finish at last year’s Caribbean Cup. Piquionne is likely the only name you recognize (and one of only four players on the squad who play club ball off the tiny island), but Martinique’s main offensive threat is 25-year-old forward Kévin Parsemain, who has 13 goals in 16 Caribbean Cup games.
Head coach: José Manuel de la Torre (Mexico)
MLS connections: none
Previous Gold Cup appearances: 12; champions in 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2009, 2011
El Tri’s “A” squad isn’t here given its long slate of World Cup qualifying and Confederations Cup duty. But maybe that’s a good thing given their struggles. In their place, “Chepo” de la Torre has summoned an entirely domestic-based unit to go for a three-peat – a feat that’s only been accomplished once before in Gold Cup history by Mexico in 1993-98. But this unit has its troubles, too: They’re young (a dozen players 25 or younger) and are unproven at this level, especially – like the senior side of late – when it comes to goalscoring. It doesn’t help when a truly recognizable difference-maker like ex-Sporting KC forward Omar Bravo drops out for “personal reasons.” Still, talent like Chivas Guadalajara pair Rafa Márquez Lugo and Marco Fabián, prolific new Santos Laguna recruit Javier Orozco and Club América starlet Raúl Jiménez (the lone Confederations Cup holdover) is enough to give anyone trouble and puts El Tri among the favorites.
Head coach: Julio Dely Valdés (Panama)
MLS connections: Blas Pérez (FC Dallas)
Previous Gold Cup appearances: 5; runners-up in 2005
With Los Canaleros chasing their first-ever World Cup berth, Dely Valdés also opted to rest some of his regulars for this tournament. Which means no menacing captain Felipe Baloy or knifing midfielder Armando Cooper, among others. But backline destroyer Román Torres is still here, as is the ever-irascible Pérez, Panama’s No. 2 all-time scorer (although he’ll miss the opener vs. Mexico). Add in other regulars like goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gómez, and The Red Tide are still plenty capable, dangerous and hungry in their fifth straight Gold Cup appearance.
Despite their younger-skewing rosters, traditional heavyweights Mexico and Panama will still be favored to advance out of the group. What will be more interesting is how seriously El Tri take this tournament. It’s not a priority for them with the senior team seeking greater glory – but given the fact that they’ve won just twice in their past nine competitive matches, Chepo & Co. may look to make a grand statement here to calm the panicked fan base. And they’ll certainly have an enormous army of support in their opener against Panama on July 7 at the Rose Bowl – the same place they crushed the USMNT to clinch the 2011 title.
Canada, meanwhile, are facing a huge uphill battle in what amounts to a group of death, especially given the Canucks’ green squad. They’ll need to come out with authority and force the issue as much as they can on Martinique in their opener – it’s easily their best chance for a full three points in this group. And there’s probably no sense in looking ahead yet. Without a win against the Caribbean minnows, the young Canadians’ tournament is, in all reality, probably finished.