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This month's Gold Cup competition is critical to U.S. long-term plans. Can the Yanks assert their regional authority?
The CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean, kicked off in the U.S. last weekend and runs through June 25. While the tournament takes place every two years, this Gold Cup comes with a perk: The winner earns a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup, an important dress rehearsal in Brazil for the World Cup that follows in 2014. "The Gold Cups that determine who represents CONCACAF [in the Confederations Cup] are extra important," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "We knew it in 2007 [when the U.S. won the Gold Cup], and we feel the same way now."
Here are five things to watch for in this year's Gold Cup
1 | Will the U.S. and Mexico set up a big-game final in the Rose Bowl?
If the continent's two heavyweights reach the final, it would be the most anticipated soccer game of 2011 in this part of the world. The bitter rivals have split the last two finals—the U.S. won 2--1 in 2007, while Mexico blew out an American B squad 5--0 in '09—and both teams will be at full strength. The Yanks have dominated the rivalry on U.S. soil recently, but the sold-out Rose Bowl would be decidedly in favor of El Tri. Anything less than a trophy will not be acceptable to either side, and that's just one of the things that makes this rivalry great.
2 | Can Mexico's Javier (Chicharito) Hernández bring his Manchester United form to North America?
The 23-year-old forward was perhaps the biggest revelation of European soccer this season, his first abroad, scoring 20 goals in all competitions for United and becoming one of the most popular North American athletes in the world. If his form carries over through June—and Chicharito had a hat trick in El Tri's 5--0 win over El Salvador on Sunday—look out, U.S. "His movement, his timing are really good," says Bradley. "It was a great signing for Man United. We're always hoping that our players can continue to grow in these ways too." Which brings us to....
3 | Can the U.S. forwards turn things around?
Hernández's meteoric rise has raised questions about why U.S. forwards have had such a disappointing scoring record in Europe. In particular, first-choice striker Jozy Altidore, now 21, has struggled in his three seasons in Europe and is in danger of dropping down the U.S. depth chart. "Jozy has played pretty well for our national team," says Bradley. "Now he's got to find a club situation where people see the talent and feel like this is a player who can help. He needs to find a way where he's on the field and developing consistency." With Altidore languishing and fellow Gold Cup strikers Juan Agudelo and Chris Wondolowski unproven (just seven caps between them), the U.S. will continue to rely on midfielders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan for goals.
4 | Any chance for a dark horse?