FIFA Ranking: 107
Qualification: 2014 Caribbean Cup, Fourth Place
Appearance: 8th / Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2003, 2013)
Roster Breakdown: 23 Domestic
Player to Watch: MID Ariel Martinez (FC Sancti Spiritus, CUB) - I should not highlight the fact that Martinez netted a hat trick against my beloved Belize Jaguars in East Hartford, CT two years ago but it might take a similar effort to get Cuba out of the group this tournament.
Tournament Outlook - The only Cuba expert I know is Brendan Doherty and I don't even think he can spin this team in a positive light. Here's his take on the current state of Cuba:
Undoubtedly fans of the Cuban national team dream of a day when the play on the field, whether positive or negative, is the leading story heading into a regional competition. Certainly the technical staff share that wish and, based on the relative talent levels across CONCACAF, have enough to worry about without the specter of player desertions and political obstacles.
There are two headlines about Cuba heading into this Gold Cup. One is that six players and the team's head coach are stuck outside the United States after failing to complete the proper paperwork to secure visas. Those players are the country's young guns; goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez, star forward Maykel Reyes, winger Arichel Hernandez, and defenders Daniel Luis Saez, Andy Baquero, and Arturo Diz Pe. These young players were in Puerto Rico, St Kitts & Nevis, and Barbados for the Caribbean qualification tournament for the CONCACAF U-23 Championships (Olympic qualification). At least four of these young players would be starters for Cuba in the Gold Cup and all six would be likely to see time in the tournament.
The second headline is that a forward named Keilen Garcia has reportedly already deserted the Cuban national team in Chicago ahead of its opening match against regional giants Mexico. Garcia did not report for team activities on Wednesday morning and the national team has nominally requested a full investigation by hotel security and law enforcement, as they do in each case of player desertions.
If missing six players because of visa issues and a seventh due to desertion wasn't bad enough, if Cuba gets a miracle and their players travel to Chicago in time for the game against Mexico, starting goalkeeper Sanchez will still have to serve a suspension for a straight red card shown in a World Cup qualifier against Curaçao. But assuming things stand as they were late Wednesday night, Cuba will only have 16 of the allotted 23 players available for the team's first game of the Gold Cup.
Clearly even with recent political thawing and the spectacle of the NY Cosmos playing on the island, Cuba's soccer is still far from the point when what happens on the field takes center stage.
Their head coach and six players are arriving before today's game, maybe, coming from Olympic U-23 qualifying, there's already a few reports of a player deserting from the team and they got bounced from 2018 World Cup Qualifying by Curacao on away goals. I want to believe that this is a team that can compete with Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago, but right now it's difficult to see them getting a win in either of those games. Could they scratch out a couple of draws? Sure, but this does not look like a team capable of making the knockout stages right now.
FIFA Ranking: 93
Qualification: 2014 Copa Centroamericana, Runners-up
Appearance: 10th / Best Finish: Fourth (1996)
Player to Watch: MID Marco Pappa (Seattle Sounders, USA) - For all the amazing playmaking ability Seattle has in Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, Pappa is rightly mentioned alongside of them and with good reason. He's a talented winger that will look to feed longtime MLS vet Carlos Ruiz up top to spark the Los Chapines on offense.
Tournament Outlook - Make no mistake, that 4-0 scoreline did not reflect how well Guatemala played against the United States. Carlos Ruiz is a legend but he's 35 years old and still probably the best attacking option for this team that quite frankly can't score. They advanced into the third round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying by beating Bermuda on aggregate 1-0, not exactly inspiring results but this is a team that's going to battle every step of the way. I don't see a third team coming out of this group, but it's not impossible for Guatemala to finish second behind Mexico in this group.
FIFA Ranking: 23
Qualification: North America, Automatic
Appearance: 13th / Best Finish: Champions (1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2009, 2011)
Player to Watch: DEF Miguel Layun (Watford, ENG) - One of my favorite players to watch from Mexico's struggles two years ago, the left back really cemented himself as a regular player during what I thought was a solid Gold Cup two years ago when he made his international debut.
Tournament Outlook - The loss of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez in the warm-up friendly against Honduras is a tough blow to this team but Mexico hasn't always played that well with him in the lineup in recent years. Instead the attacking burden will fall to Giovanni Dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Oribe Peralta which is a pretty good group to have in their own right. They have the easier half of the bracket likely avoiding the USA or Costa Rica until the final. Anything short of making it back to the Gold Cup final after a disappointing semifinal exit in 2013 will not take the pressure off head coach Miguel Herrera and Mexico's recent run of form during 2015 and Copa America.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
FIFA Ranking: 67
Qualification: 2014 Caribbean Cup, Runner-up
Appearance: 9th / Best Finish: Third (2000)
Player to Watch: Kenwyne Jones (Cardiff City, ENG) - The long time EPL veteran and T&T captain has been a mainstay for his country since a surprise World Cup qualification in 2006. T&T haven't maintained their status as a Hexagonal regular, but they're still pretty good.
Tournament Outlook: This could be the one team that gives Mexico a little bit of trouble, with Jones and Orlando City's Kevin Molino a fairly potent attacking combination. You wouldn't normally think of T&T as a semifinal contender, but if they finish second in the group, that means a match against the Group B runner up, possibly Jamaica. That's a team they've beaten back in a 2013 friendly and lost on penalties in the final of the Caribbean Cup after a 0-0 draw. Of course, they have to finish second in the group means claiming six points from Guatemala and Cuba.
Thursday, July 9: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
7:00 p.m.: Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guatemala (Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes)
9:30 p.m.: Mexico vs. Cuba (Fox Sports 1, UniMás, Univision Deportes)
Sunday, July 12: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
6:30 p.m.: Trinidad & Tobago vs. Cuba (Fox Sports 2, Univision Deportes)
9:00 p.m.: Guatemala vs. Mexico (Fox Sports 2, Univision, Univision Deportes)
Wednesday, July 15: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
6:00 p.m.: Cuba vs. Guatemala (Fox Sports 2, UniMás, Univision Deportes)
8:30 p.m.: Mexico vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Fox Sports 2, UniMás, Univision Deportes)
KEY MATCHUP - Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guatemala
I think that this game sets the tone for these two teams, a win means likely securing a berth in the next round while a loss puts you at the mercy of the third place tie break. A draw like puts you in an awkward spot of goal differential to clinch second, meaning avoiding a blowout loss against Mexico and/or running it up against Cuba. And despite my respect for Guatemala in the US game, their lack of finishing bothers me greatly.
There is a drastic difference between Mexico and everyone else in this group, even with the injury to Hernandez. While I think the rest of the group can be competitive, this is Mexico's group to lose although we saw Costa Rica slip up yesterday in a draw vs. Jamaica so anything is possible in the Gold Cup. I think we have to remind ourselves that T&T is the 6th ranked team in CONCACAF at the start of qualifying and earned a bye into the 4th round with the big boys like the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica, and I think they prove worthy of that ranking in this group.
1. Mexico 2. Trinidad and Tobago 3. Guatemala 4. Cuba