The CONCACAF Gold Cup begins Sunday, with a Costa Rica-Cuba/Mexico-El Salvador doubleheader in front of a sellout crowd at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and plenty is at stake.
There's the trophy, to be sure, plus the berth in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup -- that's the real prize, as the U.S., a 2009 Confederations finalist, can report -- and spirited competition to prepare for the start of qualifying for the next World Cup.
More vital could be the tournament's role in restoring credibility to CONCACAF, which is on its third president in a week after FIFA's corruption scandal exploded in the Caribbean.
HEAVY INTRIGUE: It's been a wild week in the soccer world, and especially the confederation's New York offices, since a FIFA investigation into charges levied by CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer that CONCACAF President Jack Warner, of Trinidad & Tobago, and fellow FIFA executive committee member Mohamed bin Hamman offered cash to Caribbean officials in exchange for votes in Wednesday's FIFA presidential election.
Warner and bin Hamman were suspended last weekend by FIFA's Ethics Committee -- bin Hamman was forced to withdraw from the election, and Sepp Blatter, unopposed, was reelected -- and Barbadan Lisle Austin took over as acting CONCACAF president. His first order was to dismiss Blazer, an American, leading to a legal skirmish, with the confederation telling Austin he didn't have the power to fire Blazer and Austin accusing Blazer of trespassing and stealing company resources by continuing at his job.
It hid a head Thursday, with Austin suspended -- and claiming his suspension wasn't legal -- Honduran Alfredo Hawit taking charge, and Blazer still on the job. Expect more fireworks shortly.
The intrigue has had no impact on Gold Cup preparations, but there is a threat that what's happening off the field will obscure what occurs on it. A sizzling tournament could direct focus back between the lines.
U.S.-MEXICO?: The 12-nation regional championship -- CONCACAF governs soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean -- is being played at a barnstorming tour of sorts, to 13 venues across the nation (with a Group B doubleheader Monday at Home Depot Center), wrapping up June 25 at the Rose Bowl with, the money men hope, a showdown between archrivals U.S., which opens Tuesday against Canada in Detroit, and Mexico.
The Yanks (four-time champs) and El Tri (five-time winners) aren't the only sides capable of making it to the final day. Here are six teams, including the favorites, to keep an eye on the next three weeks:
Forget Saturday's blowout loss to Spain. Bob Bradley fielded an, uh, experimental lineup, and it got carved up by the World Cup champs. This is a first-choice group, for the most part -- wish German-born outside back Timothy Chandler were here -- and that means anything less than a title-game appearance, preferably against Mexico, would be abject failure. The Yanks brought a C team to the proceedings two years ago and reached the final (falling to Mexico, 5-0), but this time they're serious, looking to add to Gold Cup crowns from 1991, 2002, 2005 and 2007. With Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard on the field, no reason they can't. Group: C
Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre's first real test as El Tri boss is a big one, and he's assembled a group long on talent and depth, grit and savvy, creativity and finishing strength. On paper, nobody here can better the Mexicans, but any battle with the U.S. -- especially on U.S. soil, even in L.A. -- is a tough proposition. Striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is coming off a stunning campaign with Manchester United, add in young creator Giovani Dos Santos, versatile captain Rafa Marquez, a dynamic midfield anchored by old hand Gerardo Torrado, a veteran backline, a new fan sensation in Christian “Hobbit” Bermudez … they've got it all, right? Not quite. With Jose de Jesus Corona booted for that semifinal head-butt, goalkeeping is a liability. Group: A
Los Catrachos last year played in their first World Cup since 1982, then went out in January and claimed their first Central American title in 16 years. Manager Luis Fernando Suarez has 11 players who started at least once (and four who never left the field) in South Africa, plus forward Carlo Costly, who missed the Cup through injury, while old stars such as Carlos Pavon and Amado Guevara have moved on. The next generation is being blooded, and the quality through the team makes Honduras the best Central American bet. Group: B
The Ticos traditionally are Central America's top squad, with three World Cup trips since 1990, three CONCACAF championships (all before the Gold Cup era) and six Central American titles. They missed out on the World Cup after conceding a late goal to U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein in the final qualifier -- it sent Honduras through and made Los Alamitos' Bornstein a hero to Hondurans -- and lost to their old rival in the Copa Centroamericana final in January. The old guard is gone, leaving Real Salt Lake star Alvaro Saborio and Club Brugge defender Junior Diaz and Scandinavia-based midfielder Celso Borges and Christian Bolaņos to lead. Group: A
This might be the best team the Reggae Boyz have fielded, and that includes the group that won a game at the 1998 World Cup. Were that Omar Cummings here, and healthy and in fine form, there'd be no doubt, but Cummings pulled out last week and his Colorado Rapids teammate Tyrone Marshall, a veteran center back, followed suit. They're still a good side, with one of CONCACAF's elite goalkeepers (Galaxy star Donovan Ricketts) and a fast, skilled, better-organized-than-usual group leaning heavily on players from MLS, England and Scandinavia. Group: B
Trivia question, with a trick answer. Name a CONCACAF country that has won the World Cup. Not the Women's World Cup nor the U-17 World Cup but the World Cup. … Yep, the Guadeloupeans. Officially, they're part of France -- just like Hawaii is part of the U.S. -- and have produced two of the finest French players, Lilian Thuram and Jocelyn Angloma, the latter an assistant coach for this squad. They're not eligible for FIFA events but made a stirring run to the Gold Cup semifinals four years ago and, led by Sporting Kansas City midfielder Stephane Auvray, are looking for another deep march. Group: C