The FIFA Women's World Cup ended two days ago. Soccer withdrawls were immediately felt across the country.
So hard being a soccer fan in this country. Have to wait until [checks schedule] TOMORROW for more high-stakes international action.— Howard Megdal (@howardmegdal) July 6, 2015
Yes, tomorrow is now today and it's time for the United States Men's National Team to begin their defense of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and possibly secure a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. First up for the USA is Group A with two semifinalists from 2013 in Honduras and runner-up Panama as well as spunky Haiti looking for an upset on the way to the knockout stages.
FIFA Ranking: 76
Qualification: 2014 Caribbean Cup, 3rd Place
Appearance: 6th / Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2002, 2009)
Roster Breakdown: 1 Domestic, 7* USA, 3 France, 2 Poland, 2 Cyprus, 1 Argentina, 1 Greece, 1 Russia, 1 Malaysia, 1 Romania, 1 Belgium, 1 India (* - Andrew Jean-Baptiste released by NY Red Bulls, currently unattached)
Player To Watch: FWD Kervins Belfort (Ethnikos Achna, CYP) - Led Haiti with three goals in Caribbean Cup qualifying and is the leading scorer on the roster.
Tournament Outlook: This is a staggeringly young team and I was surprised at diversity of the players clubs which hail from all corners of the world. Haiti also has players from four divisions of the US soccer pyramid if we count the recently released Jean-Baptiste who could make his international debut for Haiti in this tournament. Surprisingly they received a bye into the third round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018 by being ranked higher than Canada at the start of that process. Unfortunately, they're the minnows in a fairly loaded Group A and if they want to get to the quarterfinals beating a struggling Honduras team will be a must.
FIFA Ranking: 75
Qualification: 2014 Copa Centroamericana, 5th Place / Won Playoff vs. French Guiana
Appearance: 12th / Best Finish: Runner-up (1991)
Player To Watch: MID Oscar Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo, USA) - A familiar and talented name for many who follow MLS, Garcia is one of only two players on the roster with over 100 international appearances and one of just three outfield players at 30 or older.
Tournament Outlook: This is not the same Honduras team that has given the United States and CONCACAF fits at times in qualifying the last few years, at least not on paper. Roger Espinoza declined a call up citing not being at his best physically, former New England Revolution striker Jerry Bengtson didn't get selected either. What Honduras is left with is a striker corps of four players, all 25 or under and only 6 goals between them and Anthony Lozano has five himself. Honduras has made the semifinals in four of the last five tournaments dating back to 2005 but if they make the knockout stages it could be one and done for the team that has struggled mightily since the World Cup last summer.
FIFA Ranking: 54
Qualification: 2014 Copa Centroamericana, 3rd Place
Appearance: 7th / Best Finish: Runners-up (2005, 2013)
Player To Watch: GK Jaime Penedo (Los Angeles Galaxy, USA) - Okay, so this is a straight homer pick because I've loved Penedo since way back in 2005 when he won the Golden Gloves in Panama's first runner-up appearance. The fact that Matt Reis is coaching him now might just be a bonus.
Tournament Outlook: This is the second best team in the group and it might not be close. I am worried that strikers Blas Perez and Luis Tejada are getting up in age, a little, but Gabriel Torres of the Colorado Rapids has been fairly solid for club and country as well. It's also a pretty talented midfield group as well and certainly can be the darkhorse pick to make the finals again.
FIFA Ranking: 27
Qualification: N. America/Hosts - Automatic
Appearance: 13th / Best Finish: Champions (1991, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2013)
Roster Breakdown - 11 MLS, 4 Germany, 3 Mexico, 3 England, 1 France, 1 Netherlands
Player To Watch: MID Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, USA) - This isn't the first time you'll hear this, but Beckerman might be the most important player for the USMNT. He protects the backline and keeps Michael Bradley further up the field to do amazing Michael Bradley things. He should be a starter if Klinsmann wants to win this thing and automatically qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.
Tournament Outlook: As always with the USA, it's the tournament final or bust. If you get to Mexico in the final and lose then that's basically all you ask for. Costa Rica has been a tremendous high following the World Cup and it will be no easy task dispatching them either and the US road to the final would go through Los Ticos in the semifinals. A second place finish in the group means facing the winner of Group B in the quarterfinals, which is probably going to be Costa Rica. So taking care of business in the group stage is a must to set up as nice a bracket as possible for the knockout rounds. Back-to-back Gold Cup wins means they would avoid a play-off with the 2015 winner and an automatic berth back to the Confederations Cup.
July 7th, Toyota Stadium, Frisco, TX - Panama vs. Haiti (FS2) 7:00 PM EST, USA vs. Honduras (FS1) 9:30PM EST
July 10th, Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, MA - Honduras vs. Panama (FS2) 6:00PM EST, USA vs. Haiti 8:30PM EST
July 13th, Sporting Park, Kansas City, KS - Haiti vs. Honduras (FS1) 7:00PM EST, Panama vs. USA (FS1) 9:30PM EST
KEY MATCHUP - USA vs. Panama
It's a rematch of the 2013 Final and Panama should be really sore at the USA after that calender year. Let's not forget Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson's late goals that knocked Panama out of the World Cup playoff against New Zealand in the final group match of the Hex. There's a revenge factor here for Panama and if they're motivated they can get a result, a draw and a favorable goal differential could win them the group if both teams have seven points.
As far as I'm concerned the only question here is not whether the United States and Panama will advance, it's how they'll finish in the group. Last year the USA played their final group match against Costa Rica when both teams had won their first two games and the exact same scenario could play out here. On the surface having a group with three of the four 2013 semifinalists in it would be a recipe for disaster, or at least excitement, but I'm not expecting a lot from Honduras here other than being a total wild card. Honduras could play well and win the group or be a total train wreck like they were in qualifying for the Gold Cup, nothing would surprise me. Last year three points was enough to make the knockout stages for Cuba in the third place tiebreaker and that's where Honduras could be headed if they win their last game against Haiti. It's unfortunate Haiti gets true underdog status in this group because they're not an untalented team just too often overshadowed in this competition.
1. United States 2. Panama 3. Honduras (*-advances to QF) 4. Haiti