Handicapping Gold Cup quarterfinals
The first two weeks of the Gold Cup might seem like a textbook definition of wasted energy. After all, a total of 18 games are played to eliminate four teams. But now the quarterfinals are upon us, and the real fun can begin at last.
It's a time when the margin for error shrinks to zero. If a team has a bad day like the U.S. had in the group stage against Panama, there's no opportunity to plot a recovery. The loser is left facing recriminations and questions about where it all went wrong. And while plenty of eyes will be on the Americans' quarterfinal tilt against Jamaica on Sunday, there are some engaging encounters to be had in the other matchups. Here's a quick rundown of those Gold Cup matchups.
Panama vs. El Salvador
Panama's last-second equalizer against Canada allowed El Salvador to progress. Now Los Cuscatlecos will try to make Panama pay for its charity.
Of course, the good news for El Salvador is that it avoided a date with the U.S., but things won't get much easier against Los Canaleros. Panama has been one of the surprises of the tournament and, in claiming Group C, handed the U.S. its first group-play loss in its history. El Salvador finished third in Group A, with its 6-1 hammering of Cuba ensuring its passage to the knockout stages.
Panama came into the tournament with forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada garnering most of the plaudits. But the central midfield duo of Gabriel Gomez and Amilcar Henriquez has been a revelation, with Gomez's combination of technical ability and physicality allowing him to impose his will at both ends of the field. Armando Cooper also has added a healthy dose of creativity to Panama's midfield.
El Salvador's strength is in its front line, where Rodolfo Zelaya has been in fine form with three goals in as many games. Osael Romero, Eliseo Quintanilla and Arturo Alvarez all got on the scoresheet in El Salvador's rout of Cuba, but more importantly, these players will be counted on to make sure the supply line to Zelaya and fellow front-runner Rudis Corrales remains open. Los Cuscatlecos' holding midfielder, Dennis Alas, also will need to do what he can to blunt the influence of Panama's midfield.
Costa Rica vs. Honduras
It would seem that the international soccer fates are wrought with irony, as the two teams that waged an epic battle for the last guaranteed CONCACAF spot for the 2010 World Cup now will meet in the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup.
Both teams have had somewhat disappointing tournaments so far. For Honduras, it has had to make do without mainstays such as Maynor Figueroa and Emilio Izaguirre, yet the news is getting better. Forward Carlo Costly, who had to be substituted with a rib injury early in the group finale against Jamaica, could participate in the quarterfinal, according to news out of Honduras. Similar reports have midfield lynchpin Wilson Palacios, who has been sidelined for the entire tournament so far because of complications from knee surgery he underwent in March, seeing some minutes Saturday. That will come as welcome news to manager Luis Fernando Suarez, who, besides a 7-1 demolition of Grenada, has seen his team fail to find the back of the net.
Costa Rica hasn't been much better and is no doubt still smarting from the 4-1 shellacking it received at the hands of Mexico. It's a result that clearly stuck in the craw of manager Ricardo La Volpe, who once was the coach of El Tri. There has even been talk of a "slump" in the Costa Rican press, with senior players such as Bryan Ruiz attempting to shore up the morale of the squad.
On the field, the matchup of Costa Rican forwards Alvaro Saborio and Ruiz against Honduran center backs Osman Chavez and Victor Bernardez should do plenty to catch the eye. Honduras has one of the better defensive records in the tournament with just two goals conceded, while Costa Rica's talented front line pairing has yet to find its best form.
Mexico vs. Guatemala
If there is one quarterfinal encounter that has the potential to be a mismatch, this is it. Mexico laid waste to Group A, scoring a preposterous 14 goals while conceding only one in three matches. Guatemala, meanwhile, qualified as one of the best third-place finishers.
So does Guatemala have any hope? It's soccer, so there is always hope, but the odds of Guatemala pulling an upset are impossibly long. They rest in part on a midfield that was effective during the group stage at squeezing space, with Wilfred Velasquez tasked with the destroyer role.
But this game will be largely decided on the flanks. Both of Mexico's wide players, Pablo Barrera and in particular Andres Guardado, have been operating at peak form, and Guatemala will be hard-pressed to cut off the supply line to the irrepressible Javier Hernandez, who leads the Gold Cup scoring charts with five goals.
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In attack, Guatemala does have midfielder Marco Pappa as well as forward Carlos Ruiz, both of whom are capable of poaching the odd goal. But Mexico would appear to have more than enough talent in the back to stifle any Los Chapines' attack, with Rafa Marquez and Hector Moreno forming a solid partnership in the center of Mexico's defense. Simply put, El Tri seem unstoppable at the moment and should win this game comfortably.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.