The group stage is over, the knockout rounds begin and good riddance.
I don’t care if this was an off-year Gold Cup with a lot of “B” teams, most of the group stage games were uninteresting and/or bad to watch. This perhaps goes especially for the United States and Mexico, the two best nations in the region. There were hardly any upsets to speak of and the only storylines worth mentioning from the group stage were French Guiana’s forfeit and Alphonso Davies of Canada lighting it up before getting hurt.
Hopefully the Gold Cup knockout rounds can add something resembling excitement and drama, which we saw very little of in the group matches. The favorites for the most part got results even if they made it hard on themselves in the process for long stretches. The quarterfinal matchups are fairly interesting with the parity established during group games leading to interesting sides of the bracket leading to the final
The USMNT has called up six players to reinforce their squad while Mexico stood pat with their young roster of domestic LigaMX players. Canada added Cyle Larin to their roster, adding one of their best talents to a squad that made the quarterfinals for the first time since 2009. Costa Rica made a few changes as well and aside from keeper Keylor Navas they have been playing with a full senior roster from the beginning. Regional stalwarts Jamaica, Panama and Honduras are all knockout round threats while El Salvador is perhaps the only upstart left at this stage.
TV SCHEDULE (all games on FS1, all times Eastern)
Wednesday, July 19, 2017 (Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA)
QF1: Costa Rica vs. Panama, 6 p.m.
QF2: USA vs. El Salvador, 9 p.m.
Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Univ. of Pheonix Stadium, Glendale, AZ)
QF3: Mexico vs. Honduras, 7:30 p.m.
QF4: Jamaica vs. Canada, 10 p.m.
Saturday, July 22, 2017 (AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX)
QF1 Winner vs. QF2 Winner, 9:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 23, 2017 (Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA)
QF3 Winner vs. QF4 Winner, 8:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 26, 2017 (Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA)
SF1 Winner vs. SF2 Winner, 9:30 p.m.
QF1: Costa Rica vs. Panama
This could very well be the best pure matchup in the quarterfinals. Panama have been on the cusp of a World Cup for what seems like the last decade and Costa Rica is coming off a quarterfinal appearance in Brazil 2014. On paper, Costa Rica has the edge but it’s actually been Panama that’s been the better team in the Gold Cup in recent tournaments. Costa Rica sits in second place of The Hex at 11 points with Panama in fourth place at 7 points.
Both teams won two games in the group stage, with Costa Rica’s 1-0 win over Honduras probably the best win out of those. Panama was solid in their 1-1 draw against the USA and then took care of business versus Nicaragua and Martinique but weren’t overpowering. Not only is this matchup between two high level teams, but it’s also fairly even and could produce a lot of quality and late drama as I expect this one to remain close. If Panama doesn’t have to sit back on the counter, a wide open game could be very exciting between these two sides though that might favor the Ticos style of play more. Costa Rica’s offense wasn’t all that great in the group stage, just beating Honduras 1-0 and getting shutout in a 0-0 draw to Canada. Despite that, you have to assume the Ticos will score in this one and try and force Panama into an more open game to take advantage of the usually solid Panama defense.
QF2: United States vs. El Salvador
The USMNT are perhaps fortunate to be the winners of Group B as they were level with Panama on points and clinched the top seed on a goals scored tiebreaker. This meant the US avoided not only Mexico’s side of the bracket but also Costa Rica in this round. With six new players on the roster likely to be thrust into the starting lineup, drawing El Salvador here gives the USA’s reinforcements a good game to acclimate to the national team after missing the group matches.
El Salvador to their credit are no strangers to the quarterfinals but were thrashed by the US 5-1 in this round back in 2013. Usually a third place finisher in the group stages, El Salvador can make things difficult for anyone they play against but at the same time don’t pull off a lot of upsets. Remember those two PKs the USA missed against Nicaragua? The quarter and semifinal rounds won’t go to extra time, but rather straight to the shootout. Food for thought if El Salvador can get a draw in regulation.
QF3: Jamaica vs. Canada
This might be the most fun match of round if both teams are willing to attack. We know these two sides are usually organized defensively but Canada in particular has struggled to score goals in recent years and Gold Cups. If Alphonso Davies is healthy and with Cyle Larin now on the roster, Canada’s should have all the offensive firepower they need to get into the semifinals.
The real equalizer for this matchup is Jamaica keeper and former Connecticut Huskies player, Andre Blake. With Tim Howard in the twilight of his career and Navas not playing, Blake is probably the best keeper in the tournament. Jamaica can ride his heroics in net especially if they find themselves in a shootout during the knockout games. What makes this game so intriguing to me is that both teams can go Jekyll/Hyde on us at any point. We’ve seen mostly “good” Canada so far but this is a team that hasn’t played a Gold Cup knockout game in a while and that does bother me. Jamaica, though they’ve been solid so far in this tournament, did crash out of World Cup qualifying in spectacularly bad fashion last year. Even if both teams show up with their “bad” forms, this game could still be fun to watch in my opinion, just maybe for different reasons that involve comedy and/or groaning. If both good teams show up, it should just be fun period.
QF4: Mexico vs. Honduas
Under a different circumstance, I would be really excited about this game because like Costa Rica-Panama, it’s between two teams in The Hex. However, Mexico is using their “B” team and Honduras was incredibly disappointing in the group stage and really only qualified as a third place team because of French Guiana’s forfeit.
All that being said, if Honduras shows up they can turn this into a very CONCACAF affair. What bothers me about Honduras is they didn’t score at all in the group stage, their only goals were awarded via the 3-0 forfeit. While Antony Lozano’s addition to the squad could help the attack, the good news is the Honduras defense only allowed a single goal in the group stage, to Costa Rica in a 1-0 loss. However, playing for a 0-0 draw and penalties for 90 minutes against El Tri doesn’t seem like a viable strategy in this one. Honduras is going to have to score and likely more than once, if they want a shot to advance.
KNOCKOUT STAGE OVERVIEW
I really like the balance of the bracket in this one. Mexico might have the harder quarterfinal against Honduras, but it will be the Americans with the harder semifinal if both teams advance. If we assume the US and Mexico do advance, I think regardless of who wins the Jamaica-Canada and the Costa Rica-Panama match it will produce two excellent semifinal matches this weekend. All signs will always point to a USA-Mexico final until proven otherwise, but the group stage I think has proven this tournament could be very wide open. I’m not entirely sure parity reigned in the group stage, but certainly no team ran away with their group or looked overly impressive in advancing to the quarterfinals except for perhaps Canada. I’m banking on this theory to finally produce some good soccer in this tournament because if we’re being honest, we haven’t see much of it yet.
GOLD CUP KNOCKOUT PREDICTIONS
QF: Panama, United States, Canada, Mexico
SF: United States, Mexico
Champ: United States
I want to see a rematch of the US-Panama game in the semifinals and I also want to see just how good Canada is right now. In the end, the USA’s roster reinforcements are the difference as they claim the title in extra time over Mexico.