Gold Cup

As the Gold Cup’s Knockout Stage Starts, Can Anyone Beat the US and Mexico?

Team Mexico celebrates after defeating Jamaica in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Since the first Gold Cup, back in 1991, the United States and Mexico have combined to win 12 of the 13 editions of CONCACAF’s continental tournament (the one holdout was Canada in 2000). The two powerhouse countries have also combined to make 10 semifinal appearances on top of that, an extraordinary level of dominance that rivals anything outside of Spain’s La Liga hegemony of Barcelona and Real Madrid. So far in the 2017 edition of the tournament, neither side looks to be faltering, at least on paper; they both topped their respective groups with 7 points, and both seem to have favorable roads to a grudge match final in Santa Clara later this month. Same old, same old.

Except, maybe not. Both sides have shown weaknesses that come from a period of transition and exploration (the US) and puzzling tactical decisions (Mexico). Let’s start with the hosts; since Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann back in November, the Red White & Blue has stabilized what was shaping up to be the worst qualification campaign since the US truly started dedicating resources to soccer (so, around 1994). Arena wasn’t anyone’s first choice for a manager to lead this US team; after all, he’s a “Veterans First” kind of manager, being handed over a team with a mix of geezers–in soccer terms–and exciting young talent that do things like this. Entrusting Christian Pulisic to Arena is like entrusting a Picasso to a 5-year-old with crayons; it’s almost a blessing that the Dortmund star didn’t make the Gold Cup roster.

And yet, it’s working! Arena took a C-team of youngsters to the Gold Cup, and by crook or by hook, they won their group, and even had the back-and-forth of the tournament, as their matchup with Martinique–Martinique!–generated the most fun second half for everyone who wasn’t a US fan interested in seeing their team not struggle with a minnow. Thankfully for the ol’ Stars and Stripes, 22-year-old Jordan Morris came to rescue with a brace that ensured that the USMNT would advance to the knockout stage. No foul, but definitely some harm.

It’s the decision to bring the C-Team that should worry fans that want to see anything but a repeat of the 2015 Gold Cup, wherein the United States lost to Jamaica in the semi-finals, before crashing into fourth place after a loss to Panama in the third-place match (that result probably started the downfall of Klinsmann). That same Panama team could be waiting in the semi-finals of this tournament, depending on how their match against Costa Rica goes. Will the US–whose best player has been the thinking man emoji–stand a chance against a focused, “taking this very seriously” Central American team, either one of which could still qualify over the US for the World Cup?

Sure, the influx of reinforcements allowed by Gold Cup rules will help–the US is bringing in veterans like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore for the knockout stage–but could it be too late to develop the chemistry needed to go deep into an international tournament? The US lucked out by drawing El Salvador in the quarterfinals, one of the weaker teams left, but that matchup against either Costa Rica or Panama looms large in the future.

Mexico, on the other hand, should know exactly who they are at this point. Their Hex qualifying campaign has been nothing but dominant, as they sit 3 points ahead of second-place Costa Rica, with a ticket to Russia within their grasps. Despite an underwhelming showing in the Confederations Cup, El Tri was favored win the Gold Cup at tournament’s start, as they have 3 of the last 4 times. Maybe they still are the favorites, but due to some missteps–both self-inflicted and not–Mexico is looking vulnerable.

The main culprit happens to be the architect of their recent success, manager Juan Carlos Osorio. In the grand scheme of things, Osorio has been the very definition of “good.” He’s got Mexico within a hair of an easy qualification to the World Cup–the number 1 priority for any coach during the qualifying cycle, more important than the Confederations and Gold Cups combined–and losing in the semis of a tournament to Germany is nothing to scoff at, even if the Germans brought a weakened and younger side. But his selections and tactics have all come under fire, particularly his reluctance to play his stars in their best positions; it’s become such a meme that fans were joking that Memo Ochoa selected #8 at his new club in case Osorio ever decides to play him as a winger.

Osorio isn’t coaching Mexico in the Gold Cup due to his bizarre outburst in the Confederations Cup third-place match, but his fingerprints are all over the side that mostly sleepwalked through the group stage of the Gold Cup. For better or worse, whatever happens over the next 9 days will define Osorio’s tenure; if they win without him at the helm, doubts will creep in about his role at the head of El Tri, but if they lose, fingers will be pointed at his selections and his inability to not get suspended for six games. Osorio could be seeing yet another instance of #FueraOsorio trending on social media in the near future.

On the field, Mexico has looked tense and has struggled with seemingly weaker teams, like El Salvador or–mirroring the US’s struggle with a Caribbean team–Curaçao. Mexico does have arguably the easiest path to final, taking on what should be an overmatched Honduras before facing off with the winner of Canada-Jamaica. Could we see a repeat of the 2015 final, which saw Mexico top Jamaica comfortably by 3-1? Or will Mexico face a Canadian team that’s on the rise but still years away from international contention?

This is the weakest that CONCACAF’s powerhouses have been in years at the Gold Cup, but will someone rise up and beat one (or both) of them on the way to the trophy? That’s the most riveting storyline to watch in the next couple of weeks, and will determine the perception of two different coaches. If everything works out as it’s predicted to, we’ll head into July 26th with another Mexico-US showdown, and with Arena and Osorio in high spirits. But if a handful of moments zig instead of zag, we could see the crowning of a new team at the top of CONCACAF, just in time for the final sprint into Russia 2018. Regardless of whether it’s Costa Rica–the consensus dark horse–Panama, Jamaica, or someone even more shocking, a shock to the status quo could signal big changes for everyone involved.