FRISCO, Texas — When the US national team kicks off its 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup campaign against Honduras here at Toyota Stadium on Tuesday (9:30 pm ET, Fox Sports 1/UniMas), there’s more on the line than the matter of defending and retaining their Gold Cup title.
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On top of that is the chance to re-affirm their status as CONCACAF’s preeminent, top-of-the-food-chain national power. While Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT has been busy putting together watershed friendly victory after watershed friendly victory after watershed friendly victory over the past four years, the rest of North and Central America and the Caribbean have also been busy closing the gap between themselves and the Americans when it comes to official competitions.
For proof, look no further than last summer’s World Cup, when Costa Rica, CONCACAF’s second-place qualifier to the 2014 tournament in Brazil, took eventual third-place finishers, the Netherlands, all the way to a penalty shootout in the quarterfinal round. Los Ticos outlasted not only the US in the summer of 2014, but fellow CONCACAF giants Mexico, as well.
During the 2013 Gold Cup, long-time middling side Panama beat El Tri not once, but twice (once in the group stage and again in the semifinals) as they advanced to the final before ultimately falling to a Landon Donovan-led buzzsaw.
“This region is a very difficult region,” Klinsmann said Monday evening during his pre-game press conference. “It’s very different to Europe, or even to South America.”
So many of the CONCACAF’s “other” nations boast a number of key players plying their trade in some of Europe’s biggest, most competitive leagues — Mexico’s Carlos Vela (Real Socided), Giovani Dos Santos (Villarreal), Hector Herrera (Porto) and Miguel Layun (Watford); Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz (Fulham and PSV), Joel Campbell (Arsenal and Villarreal) and Giancarlo Gonzalez (Palermo); and Honduras’ Andy Najar (Anderlecht).
Meanwhile, a number of key players for Klinsmann’s side have decided to make the controversial career decision of moving to Major League Soccer during the primes of their careers. For the MLS players to show up to this Gold Cup and not only replicate previous levels of performance, but to exceed those accounts of themselves, showing continued growth and maturation as players, is paramount for this tournament and the fortunes of the US program going forward. It’s not going to be easy.
“We have a lot of guys who have played in these Gold Cups before,” said newly-named USMNT captain Michael Bradley Monday afternoon. “They’re unique challenges when you factor in everything — the opponents, the climate, the travel, the quick turnaround. We understand that’s how it goes, and there’s certainly not going to be any excuses on our end. We feel like we have a group that is ready in all ways to get going [Tuesday] night and give this thing a real go.”
In the coming years, World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup titles will become yet increasingly hard to come by for the Yanks, as their fellow North and Central American and Caribbean nations continue to trend upward. As for Klinsmann, he’s focused solely on game No. 1 and will cross that bridge when he comes to it.
“I think it’s crucial in a tournament that you start on the right foot,” Klinsmann said of beginning the Gold Cup on a positive note, just as his side did last summer with a 2-1 victory over Ghana in their World Cup opener. “You want to build on that, therefore the first game is always very, very important. Obviously we know that the tournament motus is a little bit different than the World Cup. We’re not in the group of death like we were in Brazil, but you want to get started with three points, there’s no doubt about it.”
Simply showing up over the next three weeks, expecting a coronation and, either 1) laboring to unimpressive victories, or 2) failing to maintain their regional dominance and superiority, would be the worst possible sign for current and future editions of the US national team.