Tournament preview: Breaking down the CONCACAF Gold Cup

James Sharman talks to Octavio Zambrano about his dynamic, attacking system, which is a change of pace from the previously defensive style played by the team.

The 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup should be more wide open than usual. With the World Cup one year away, many teams have left their stars at home as they prepare for pivotal qualifiers at the end of this summer.

Mexico, the current champions, named a domestic-based squad for the Gold Cup as its European-based players just competed in the Confederations Cup. Bruce Arena left behind several first-team regulars for the United States. Costa Rica will be missing a few key members, too. The rest of the field should feel confident in advancing to the knockout stage, including the Canadian team.

Canada was drawn in Group A with Costa Rica and Honduras, but with new coach Octavio Zambrano and plenty of youth in the squad, Les Rouges should improve on their past few tournaments. They have not scored a goal in the competition since 2011, let alone win a game.

Keep in mind: The top two teams in each of the three groups advance to the quarterfinals. The two best third-place nations also move on. Teams that qualify for the knockout round are then allowed to make six changes to their roster.

Here is a closer look at every nation competing in this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, which runs from July 7 to 26 in 14 cities across the United States.

Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth coverage of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Gavin Day and James Sharman will be onsite and following Canada as it progresses through the tournament, providing regular articles and video reports. You can also follow both of them on Twitter for regular Gold Cup updates.

CANADA

Current FIFA ranking: No. 109
Best Gold Cup showing: Champions (2000)
Coach: Octavio Zambrano. Hired in March, the Ecuadorian-born tactician was brought in to guide Canada’s next generation of talent. Zambrano enters the tournament with minimal expectations, as the Canadians have not scored a goal in the Gold Cup since 2011.
Group A schedule: French Guiana (July 7 in Harrison, NJ), Costa Rica (July 11 in Houston, TX), Honduras (July 14 in Frisco, TX)
Player to watch: Anthony Jackson-Hamel. The Montreal Impact forward is tipped to replace Cyle Larin up top. Jackson-Hamel has scored two goals in just four appearances for Canada and four goals for the Impact, all of which have come as a substitute.
Big question: Will Canada play the attack-minded game Zambrano wants? Larin’s absence is not as significant as it might have been 12 months ago. Jackson-Hamel is in good form and Lucas Cavallini is banging in goals for Uruguayan giants Peñarol. Alphonso Davies and Raheem Edwards have proven reliable despite their youth, plus Junior Hoilett and Scott Arfield give the attack some experience, so Canada should be more fluid in this Gold Cup.
Outlook: Canada should pick up a win in the opener against French Guiana. Matches against Honduras and Costa Rica will be tough, but if the Canadians maintain a respectable goal difference, three points could be enough to qualify for the quarterfinals as one of the two best third-place team.

HONDURAS

Current FIFA ranking: No. 69
Best Gold Cup showing: Runner-up (1991)
Coach: Jorge Luis Pinto. The Colombian guided Costa Rica to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, but jumped ship to take over Honduras. Pinto’s side managed to win the 2017 Copa Centroamericana, despite fielding a more inexperienced squad.
Group A schedule: Costa Rica (July 7 in Harrison, NJ), French Guiana (July 11 in Houston, TX), Canada (July 14 in Frisco, TX)
Player to watch: Anthony Lozano. The striker is one of several players who represented Honduras at the 2016 Summer Olympics, where it reached the semifinals. The likes of Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Bryan Acosta are all exciting, but Lozano is slated to start as the No. 9. The 24-year-old has scored at least 10 goals in each of his two seasons with Tenerife in Spain, plus he’s in good form with the national team.
Big question: Can Honduras’ defence hold up? There is some bright attacking talent coming through the national team, but the defence remains questionable. They have kept clean sheets against Nicaragua and Belize, but the defenders have been mediocre in World Cup qualifying, conceding multiple goals against Mexico, Panama and the U.S.
Outlook: Finishing second in Group A leads to a potential date with one of Curacao, El Salvador or Jamaica in the quarterfinals. Even with the shaky defence, Honduras has a real opportunity to make the semifinals if it is the runner-up in the group. Dropping to third could lead to a match versus the U.S., which would be a difficult task.

COSTA RICA

Current FIFA ranking: No. 19
Best Gold Cup showing: Runner-up (2002)
Coach: Oscar Ramirez. The former midfielder has had the job for just under two years. Ramirez’s side is on pace to qualify for a second straight World Cup.
Group A schedule: Honduras (July 7 in Harrison, NJ), Canada (July 11 in Houston, TX), French Guiana (July 14 in Frisco, TX)
Player to watch: Ariel Rodriguez. The 27-year-old was injured before last year’s Copa America Centenario, but he has a grand opportunity to make a case as Costa Rica’s starting No. 9. Rodriguez plays in Thailand, but he was lethal in his final season with Saprissa, scoring 20 goals in 23 games. Provide quality service, and he will deliver.
Big question: Who will take their opportunities? With Costa Rica missing a few first-team players, this Gold Cup will show Ramirez who can make a stronger case to start in the future. Ronald Matarrita’s absence means the left-back role is open. Rodriguez, David Ramirez and Marco Urena will battle for the job up front as well.
Outlook: The Costa Ricans will be favoured to win Group A. Panama would be their likeliest opponent in the quarterfinals. A win there could set up a meeting with the United States in the semifinals. That should be the minimum expectation for the Central Americans.

FRENCH GUIANA

Current FIFA ranking: N/A (Not an official FIFA member)
Best Gold Cup showing: First appearance.
Coach: Jair Karam. The P.E. teacher has done a remarkable job as coach of Les Yana Dokos. French Guiana qualified for the tournament thanks to an incredible run in 2017 Caribbean Cup qualifying. The non-FIFA nation began in the first round, made the Gold Cup, and reached the semifinals of the Caribbean Cup before losing on penalties to Jamaica.
Group A schedule: Canada (July 7 in Harrison, NJ), Honduras (July 11 in Houston, TX), Costa Rica (July 14 in Frisco, TX)
Player to watch: Florent Malouda. Thanks to French Guiana being an overseas territory of France, Karam can call up French-born players. Malouda, a former Chelsea and Lyon player, will provide valuable experience for a team that will be treating this Gold Cup like a World Cup.
Big question: Can they force an upset? The Caribbean nations learned the hard way that French Guiana is resilient. Haiti had a 2-0 lead at halftime against Karam’s side, but ended up losing 5-2. Sloan Privat and a few others have experience with France’s youth national teams, so they are no slouches.
Outlook: French Guiana have minimal expectations for the tournament, which could benefit the squad. Realistically, they will finish bottom of Group A, but they will not be pushovers, as they’ve proven against Haiti and Jamaica already.

UNITED STATES

Current FIFA ranking: No. 23
Best Gold Cup showing: Champions (1991, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2013)
Coach: Bruce Arena. The U.S. coach between 1998 and 2006, Arena was brought back to help steady the ship as the Americans enduring a horrid start in the hexagonal phase of World Cup qualifying. The former LA Galaxy and D.C. United boss has named a squad mixed with youth and experience as he gave some key players a rest for the group stage.
Group B schedule: Panama (July 8 in Nashville, TN), Martinique (July 12 in Tampa, FL), Nicaragua (July 15 in Cleveland, OH)
Player to watch: Kellyn Acosta. The FC Dallas midfielder impressed against Mexico in the USA’s World Cup qualifier on June 11 at Estadio Azteca. The 21-year-old has grown tremendously in a central position for Dallas, operating as a box-to-box midfielder to unlock defences. Without veterans such as Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones around, Acosta can solidify a spot in the U.S. midfield.
Big question: Who will take the reins up front? Gyasi Zardes has been hit-and-miss, though he bagged a career-high 16 goals in 2014 for the Galaxy under Arena, which led to consistent U.S. call-ups. Jordan Morris has dealt with lingering injuries and is out form with the Seattle Sounders. That should realistically lead to Dom Dwyer and Juan Agudelo fighting for the No. 9 role. Agudelo is on pace to shatter his MLS high for goals scored. He has seven in 15 games for the Revolution. However, Dwyer’s stamina, speed and finishing also give the coaching staff plenty of flexibility.
Outlook: The U.S. should win Group B, and would then be able to call up as many as six new players to the squad. This means that the Americans should realistically make the final, which they failed to do in 2015.

PANAMA

Current FIFA ranking: No. 59
Best Gold Cup showing: Runner-up (2005, 2013)
Coach: Hernan Dario Gomez. The Colombian has been in charge of Panama’s national team since 2014, and his side is in the hunt for a World Cup qualifying spot in CONCACAF.
Group B schedule: United States (July 8 in Nashville, TN), Nicaragua (July 12 in Tampa, FL), Martinique (July 15 in Cleveland, OH)
Player to watch: Gabriel Gomez. With a few starters missing the Gold Cup, it will be up to Gomez to man the midfield alongside Anibal Godoy. The 33-year-old is the most-capped player on the roster and if Panama has hopes of making a deep run, he will be crucial to its chances.
Big question: Who will score the goals? Gomez is the top scorer ahead of strikers Gabriel Torres (10) and Abdiel Arroyo (3). It will likely be an offence led by a committee of players, as they seldom score multiple goals in a game, but in a knockout tournament, it’s not necessarily a negative.
Outlook: Panama will likely face Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. The defence is somewhat inexperienced and unless the Panamanians can hold a fast-paced Costa Rican attack at bay, they will have a tough challenge. Should they face Honduras, Los Canaleros should feel confident of progressing to the semifinals.

MARTINIQUE

Current FIFA ranking: N/A (Not a FIFA member)
Best Gold Cup showing: Quarterfinals (2002)
Coach: Jean-Marc Civault. The Frenchman was hired on an interim basis back in September after Louis Marianne stepped down temporarily due to health issues. Since then, Civault has guided the team to the semifinals of the 2017 Caribbean Cup, losing to eventual champion Curacao.
Group B schedule: Nicaragua (July 8 in Nashville, TN), United States (July 12 in Tampa, FL), Panama (July 15 in Cleveland, OH)
Player to watch: Jean-Sylvain Babin. The Sporting Gijon centre-back is a commanding presence and was key during Martinique’s run in the Caribbean Cup. Martinique conceded just four goals in qualifying, the tournament semifinals and third-place match combined. If Civault’s side want to force an upset, it will have to be sturdy at the back, and that starts with Babin.
Big question: Where will the goals come from? The defence has always been stable, which was seen at the 2013 Gold Cup. The big issue is the attack. Martinique has winger Steeven Langil, who lit up Caribbean Cup qualifying with four goals. Kevin Parsemain has been a talisman for the national team, bagging 27 goals in 42 caps. Those will be the two names to watch in the final third.
Outlook: Outside of the United States, Group B is wide open. Panama will be favoured to finish second, but Martinique has a fighting chance to advance to the knockout stage. A win over Nicaragua is needed, then Les Matinino have to hope their goal difference is high enough to qualify as a best-placed third-place team, which is doable.

NICARAGUA

Current FIFA ranking: No. 100
Best Gold Cup showing: Group stage (2009)
Coach: Henry Duarte. The 58-year-old Costa Rican was appointed in 2014 and began his tenure with eight wins in his first 15 matches. Nicaragua has since lost 10 of their last 15 games in all competitions.
Group B schedule: Martinique (July 8 in Nashville, TN), Panama (July 12 in Tampa, FL), United States (July 15 in Cleveland, OH)
Player to watch: Juan Barrera. The winger is the most-capped player on the roster with 42 appearances. Barrera has 10 goals for the national team, three of which came in the Gold Cup qualification playoff against Haiti. His hat trick secured Nicaragua’s spot in the tournament.
Big question: Will Nicaragua find goals? La Azul y Blanco showed tremendous resilience in the qualifying playoff versus Haiti, but have not been in good form up front. The Nicaraguans have been shut out in six of their last eight games in all competitions. Barrera aside, this squad does not possess a quality goal-scorer up front.
Outlook: The Nicaraguans have made the Gold Cup once before this year. In 2009, they finished bottom of the group without a single win or goal scored. Panama narrowly beat Nicaragua 2-1 in the Copa Centroamericana earlier this year, but a few starters were absent. Martinique is no slouch, either.

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MEXICO

Current FIFA ranking: No. 17
Best Gold Cup showing: Champions (1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2009, 2011, 2015)
Coach: Juan Carlos Osorio. The Colombian tactician has won 20 of his 27 matches in charge, losing just twice. He’ll be aiming for the trophy with Mexico at the Gold Cup.
Group C schedule: El Salvador (July 9 in San Diego, CA.), Jamaica (July 13 in Denver, CO), Curacao (July 16 in San Antonio, TX)
Player to watch: Orbelin Pineda. The 21-year-old is one of several exciting youngsters who will be keen to impress this month. The midfielder was a key cog when Chivas won the Liga MX Clausura title in May and has attracted interest from Manchester City and Porto in the past. Pineda dictates the tempo as the No. 8 in Matias Almeyda’s system at Chivas, and is a very technical player.
Big question: Can an inexperienced squad still make a run? Seven players are uncapped for Mexico, while the vast majority each have fewer than 10 caps for the senior side. The roster is still loaded with quality, plus most of the experience is at the back with Hugo Ayala, Jair Pereira, Jorge Torres Nilo and goalkeeper Jesus Corona.
Outlook: There is no reason to believe that Mexico cannot repeat as Gold Cup champions. El Tri should breeze through Group C, earn an easier matchup in the quarterfinal and coast into the final. Plus, with several Chivas, Pachuca and Tigres players in the fold, the squad will be familiar with each other.

JAMAICA

Current FIFA ranking: No. 79
Best Gold Cup showing: Runner-up (2015)
Coach: Theodore Whitmore. The former Jamaica international replaced Winfried Schafer on an interim basis in Sept. 2016. It is Whitmore’s fourth spell in charge of the Reggae Boyz.
Group B schedule: Curacao (July 9 in San Diego, CA), Mexico (July 13 in Denver, CO), El Salvador (July 16 in San Antonio, TX)
Player to watch: Kemar Lawrence. The New York Red Bulls defender has accumulated 34 appearances for the Reggae Boyz, and he’s still 24 years old. The left-back was attracting interest from Europe after his performances with Jamaica in 2015. After a disappointing 2016, Lawrence has rebounded in 2017 and could dazzle clubs abroad yet again.
Big question: Will the young players step up? Whitmore has tried to usher in younger players ahead of the 2022 World Cup cycle. Wes Morgan, Giles Barnes, Adrian Mariappa and other established players are not on the Gold Cup roster. The likes of Lawrence, Oneil Fisher and Alvas Powell have done well in recent friendlies. There is no reason why they cannot do the same in this tournament.
Outlook: A relatively inexperienced squad lost the 2017 Caribbean Cup final to Curacao on June 25. Other than that match and a pair of losses to the U.S. and Peru, Jamaica has gradually improved. Mexico will be the favourite to win Group C, but there is no reason why Jamaica can’t come second, especially when this younger roster has nothing to lose.

CURACAO

Current FIFA ranking: No. 70
Best Gold Cup showing: First appearance
Coach: Remko Bicentini. The 49-year-old was Patrick Kluivert’s assistant when the former Barcelona striker coached Curacao. Bicentini took over in Sept. 2016 and guided the Dutch colony to its first-ever Caribbean Cup victory, defeating Jamaica in June’s final.
Group B schedule: Jamaica (July 9 in San Diego, CA), El Salvador (July 13 in Denver, CO), Mexico (July 16 in San Antonio, TX)
Player to watch: Leandro Bacuna. While he’s a full-back for Aston Villa, Bacuna has deputised in several areas for Curacao. He’s played right-back, centre-back and central midfield while the team dealt with some key absentees. Bacuna, along with captain Cuco Martina, is one of the most-established players in the squad, so his play on both sides of the ball will be needed.
Big question: Will the squad hold up? Depth has been an issue at times for Curacao. If a key player like Bacuna, Martina or goalkeeper Eloy Room are unavailable, the options off the bench are minimal. With matches every few days at this Gold Cup, Bicentini’s selection will be crucial if the Caribbean champions want to qualify for the knockout stage.
Outlook: Outside of Mexico, Group C is very balanced. Jamaica and Curacao are slight favourites over El Salvador, which makes the opening match even more intense. Curacao plays an attractive possession-heavy system, so that will benefit the team in the group stage as it will dictate the tempo of the games. Finishing as the runner-up in the group and qualifying for the quarterfinals should be the goal, which is incredible given the state of Curacao’s national team pre-Kluivert.

EL SALVADOR

Current FIFA ranking: No. 106
Best Gold Cup showing: Quarterfinals (2002, 2003, 2011, 2013)
Coach: Eduardo Lara. The Colombian coached the U-20 squad, which was one game away from qualifying for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, but El Salvador lost 2-0 to the United States. Lara has also coached Colombia’s U-17s, U-20s and the senior side as well.
Group B schedule: Mexico (July 9 in San Diego, CA), Curacao (July 13 in Denver, CO), Jamaica (July 16 in San Antonio, TX)
Player to watch: Darwin Ceren. The Salvadoran captain has seldom played for the San Jose Earthquakes since he was traded by Orlando City last year, but Ceren continues to be a key figure for the national team. His box-to-box presence and defensive grit will be needed if the Salvadorans want to force an upset or two in the group stage.
Big question: Will there be goals in this team? The Salvadoran squad is experienced, although this side has struggled to score recently. Los Cuscatleco love to attack and utilize their pace, which was evident in the Copa Centroamericana and in the 2015 Gold Cup. However, the forwards were not very clinical in the box. The pieces are there, but composure is a must.
Outlook: Every team has a unique motivation to perform in Group C. Mexico’s domestic-based players will want to impress, Curacao is riding high from the Caribbean Cup and Jamaica will want to rebound from that loss in the final. The Salvadorans will just want to get back on track. However, with a difficult opener against the Mexicans, El Salvador may be in tough to recover.