2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup preview (cont.)
Grenada: It was surely a devastating blow for the tournament's smallest nation to see New England Revolution midfield dynamo Shalrie Joseph pull out the competition, preferring instead to remain with the New England Revolution. Carolina Railhawks forward Kithson Bain, who led Grenada with five goals during the recent Caribbean Cup, also had to bow out due to a quadriceps injury. The Spice Boys are participating in their second Gold Cup -- but certainly are hopeful of a better display than their 2009 debut, when they lost all three group stage games by a combined 10-0 score. Former assistant Mike Adams was recently named coach. Curiously, that came after the tiny island nation helped eliminate Trinidad and Martinique from the Gold Cup finals during a Caribbean qualifying tournament.
Guatemala: Soccer in this Central American nation reached new heights in 2006 when the nation climbed to an alltime high 50th in FIFA's world rankings. But Los Chapines have fallen steadily since (and now rank 124th, just one spot ahead of European whipping boy Luxembourg). Guatemala barely elbowed its way into this year's Gold Cup, earning the fifth (and last) berth from the Copa Centroamerica with a 2-1 victory over Nicaragua. Recent friendlies don't portend well. Los Chapines struggled against Venezuela earlier this week in Guatemala City, a 2-0 loss for the home side. That came just days after a 1-1 draw with Bolivia in Guatemala. If the Guatemalans have any chance, they'll need big stuff from Chicago Fire attacker Marco Pappa.
Honduras: This is easily the tournament's least predictable side. Honduras is fresh off its first World Cup appearance, a high point of soccer for this economically challenged Central American land. Last January, Los Catrachos captured the Central American championships for the first time since 1995. So, is this a team on the rise? Perhaps. But Honduras can't seem to escape upheaval, having gone through three coaching changes in a year. And it lost three friendlies in a row this spring after claiming that Central American title. The Hondurans will be without important defender Maynor Figueroa; EPL side Wigan requested his release due to mental and physical fatigue, according to Catrachos coach Luis Fernando Suarez. It does have a bona fide star in Celtic left back Emilio Izaguirre, the Scottish Premier League player of the year.
Jamaica: A well-regarded Jamaican side will look fairly familiar to Major League Soccer fans, with eight selections off MLS rosters. Red Bulls winger Dane Richards heads the list, which also includes burly San Jose Earthquakes forward Ryan Johnson and Houston Dynamo center back Jermaine Taylor. (High-scoring, speedy Colorado Rapids forward Omar Cummings was named to the roster but has apparently lost his fitness battle with an ankle sprain). The rest of the side is dotted with players from Scandinavian leagues and England's lower tiers. Look for the team, which allowed just two goals in Gold Cup group play two years ago, to emerge from this foursome.
Canada: The Canadian Soccer Association has made a point recently to bulk up its senior national team, which has become something of a chronic underachiever. The talent seems to be there presently, especially in the midfield and at forward. Coach Stephan Hart has Dwayne De Rosario (New York Red Bulls), Will Johnson (Real Salt Lake), Julian de Guzman (Toronto FC), Simeon Jackson (England's Norwich City) and Atiba Hutchinson (Holland's PSV Eindhoven) to choose from in midfield alone. The defense isn't quite as strong, which may help explain a series of underwhelming results in recent friendlies, like losses to Greece and Peru and a disappointing draw last week in Toronto against Ecuador. The injury absence of Borussia Moenchengladbach veteran defender Paul Stalteri won't help a bit, either.
Guadeloupe: The tiny country (pop. 400,000) in the Lesser Antilles is an overseas department of France, and therefore not a FIFA member and ineligible for World Cups or any FIFA competition. But as a member of CONCACAF, the nation's soccer team is eligible for Gold Cup play. In fact, this is always Guadeloupe's big moment. The became the tournament darlings in 2007, motoring all the way to the semifinals (and only losing then to Mexico, 1-0). Two years ago they defeated Panama and Nicaragua in group stage but fell to Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. The roster, captained by Sporting Kansas City's Stephane Auvrey, is a mishmash from French Ligue 1 and Europe's lesser tiers.
Panama: For a small nation with an undistinguished resume in world soccer, the Red Storm hasn't done too badly in regional play. The Panamanians qualified for their fourth consecutive Gold Cup by finishing fourth earlier this year at the Copa Centroamericana, beating El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize (all by 2-0 margins) before falling in a semifinal penalty shootout to Costa Rica. If you put any stock in FIFA rankings, coach Julio Dely Valdes' team currently sits 67th, one spot ahead of Scotland. The roster is stocked with players from leagues in Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru, France, Poland and Spain. Defense, led by veteran Luis Alfonso Henríquez, who plays for Poland's Lech Poznan, is definitely Panama's strength.
United States: The challenge for coach Bob Bradley is to keep an eye on the Gold Cup prize, but still begin handing off more responsibility to a younger generation of players who will be needed during the coming World Cup cycle. As much as trusted old hands like Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra and others still mean to the program, there are fresh faces to study as well. Right back Eric Lichaj has shown promise aplenty, for instance. Same for the pair of youngsters from the New York Red Bulls, Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream, both of whom are getting their first tests in matches that truly matter. Elsewhere, this is not an opportunity to be missed for certain individuals, who may not get many chances if they fall flat here. Striker Chris Wondolowski certainly falls into that category. Same for Freddy Adu -- in a big way, in fact.