By Paul Nicholson in Houston
June 23 – The Concacaf Gold Cup opens Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago with USA facing Jamaica. The opening weekend will also feature the top clash in Group B, Mexico vs Honduras, in Houston.
This is the first time in a number of editions that the Gold Cup has opened with a single game rather that the traditional group double header. Trinidad and Tobago face St Kitts and Nevis in Fort Lauderdale before they all re-group three days later in St Louis.
The Gold Cup is a brutal schedule that covers the US and showcases the international game across the nations and to some huge immigrant communities from Central America in particular. Concacaf is reporting record ticket demand but there is still some availability for the big games in the bigger stadia.
Concacaf is a region with real diversity from Central America to North America and the Caribbean with its three main languages – English, French and Dutch. It is a cultural diversity that is reflected within the countrys and in their different styles of football.
Gold Cup 2023 Group Stage action will take place between June 24 – July 4 with the final on July 16 in Los Angles. In total 16 stadiums in 15 metropolitan boroughs will be used.
In 2021, Conacaf, struggling to qualify teams for the finals from different countries with different covid lockdown rules, introduced the preliminary play-off rounds.
It was a fix that turned into a fantastic success. It gave 12 teams the opportunity to experience the Gold Cup finals.
The format was carried into 2023 with Guadeloupe, Martinique and St Kitts and Nevis qualifying for the final 3 slots in the Group Stages.
The preliminary knock-out rounds have opened the door to nations who have never before progressed this far in the competition.
St Kitts and Nevis are the big example fo this, knocking out two favourites – Curacao and French Guiana – on their qualification route. It is their first time in the Group Stages and the first time a nation from Concacaf’s Nations League third tier have qualified.
Another example of the opportunity taken is Puerto Rico who, while not quite making it to the Group Stage, showed how fast progress can be made. The nation was one of Concacaf’s lowest ranked just a few years ago.
The Gold Cup is truly about football across the region and not just about the big dogs who traditionally slug it out in the final rounds.
But it is about them as well. The US are the reigning champions from 2021, having beaten Mexico in the final. Mexico beat the US in 2019.
Having won the Nations League a week ago in Las Vegas with two flowing and dynamic performances against Mexico and Canada that excited fans and commentators alike, the US have astonishingly dropped 17 players from that winning squad.
Instead for the Gold Cup they will rely on players pulled from the MLS and LigaMx, and Arsenal’s phenomenal reserve keeper Matt Turner.
Canada have similarly dropped four star player, including Alphonso Davies, but are going with the bulk of the squad that lost to the US in the Nations League final.
It could be a difficult opener for the US because while they have seasoned professionals and a slightly older team for the Gold Cup, they could be opening the door for Jamaica who are arriving with a team of seven premier League players who have committed to their country and what to make a mark. They are real Premier League players, not ones that spend seasons benchwarming.
The Mexicans are in transition but if under pressure manager Diego Cocca gets it right they could regain their title.
Certainly they will bring the party, pretty much filling every stadium they play at with passionate, intense and expectant fans. One of their biggest challenges will be to contain the discriminatory ‘puto’ chant that they bring and is getting the Mexican team dangerously close to points deductions in major competitions.
Concacaf has launched a predictor game as part of their promotion for the Gold Cup. Don’t expect the form book to be followed.
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