By IVES GALARCEP
HARRISON, N.J.– The CONCACAF Gold Cup doesn’t matter.
That’s what you will hear from some skeptics of the 2013 edition of the regional tournament. The fact that the region’s top teams have, for the most part, sent B teams to compete in the event has left some believing that the tournament itself is a waste of time, and just doesn’t matter all that much.
That simply isn’t the case.
Anyone who sat in Red Bull Arena on Monday night, and soaked in the spirit and passion created by the fan bases of four different countries, and watched players show the kind of emotion they did, came away knowing full well that this year’s Gold Cup absolutely matters.
And why shouldn’t it matter? It is an international competition featuring national teams wearing the colors and crests of their nations. The circumstances of this summer’s international calendar forced the top teams to send mostly B teams, but you can rest assured there aren’t all that many fans sweating those kind of details.
Does anybody honestly think Panamanian fans are going “You know, they didn’t have Chicharito” after Panama beat Mexico for the first time in the nation’s history last Sunday? Does anyone really think Mexican fans look back on ‘El Tri’s’ 2009 Gold Cup Final demolition of the United States and say “To be fair, their best players weren’t there”?
It’s all a bit of snobbery to think that if it’s not a World Cup, or a tournament like the Euros, it doesn’t matter. The Gold Cup is important, and even with many of the regions top stars on vacation ahead of their European clubs seasons, this year’s version absolutely still matters.
The tournament matters to different countries for different reasons. Take the U.S. Men’s National Team, which will kick off its Gold Cup tonight against Belize. It matters not only because of the lingering memories of two embarrassing Gold Cup final defeats in the past two tournaments. It matters because there is a crop of players fighting to play their way onto the full U.S. team.
Ask Stuart Holden if the Gold Cup matters. The tournament that helped him get his first big break with the U.S., and now the tournament that could catapult him into a major role with the full team, a role he seemed destined to take on three years ago, before injuries sidetracked him.
Ask Felipe Baloy if the Gold Cup matters. The hulking Panamanian captain just finished a grueling season with Santos Laguna, which he followed up with a month-long run through World Cup qualifying. Rather than take a sorely-needed vacation, Baloy signed up to play in the Gold Cup along with several key first-choice starters for Panama. Why? Panama has been eliminated by the United States in four straight Gold Cups, but with both the U.S. and Mexico fielding B teams, this tournament is suddenly Panama’s best, and last chance to win a Gold Cup with the current nucleus of top players.
Ask Mexican fans if the Gold Cup matters. Even though their first team isn’t at the tournament (after competing in World Cup qualifying and the Confederations Cup this summer), this Gold Cup is desperately important for a Mexican team that needs some results to help ease the growing fears of a fan base already fed up with a disappointing World Cup qualifying cycle. For a tournament that supposedly doesn’t matter, Mexico’s loss to Panama in Sunday’s opener resonated and put even more pressure on beleaguered Mexican manager ‘Chepo’ De La Torre.
Ask the Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago fans who poured into Red Bull Arena on Monday if the Gold Cup matters. You could find license plates from as far away as North Carolina crawling their way here in snarling traffic, packed with fans who didn’t just want to watch the action. They also wanted to celebrate their national pride and represent their home countries by waving flags and chanting and singing and begging for their teams to score goals in order to have something to celebrate.
Truth be told, U.S. fans have been spoiled. They have grown accustomed to seeing their team reach the finals, and in several cases win the tournament. They have watched the U.S. team dismantle overmatched opponents plenty of times in the group stages, and dispose of other mid-level CONCACAF powers with relative ease and regularity. That sort of dominance makes it easy to take the whole process for granted, and lose sight of what should make this tournament mean something.
There is a different vibe around the 2013 edition of the Gold Cup. Past tournaments haven’t always captured the type of excitement that we have already seen after two match days of this year’s version. Whether it’s the motivation of knowing that the Mexico and U.S. have sent B teams, or maybe just the reality that the CONCACAF region, as a whole, has seen across the board improvement, the early games have been exciting, competitive and filled with passion and intrigue.
The reality is this year’s Gold Cup is the most wide open in years. As much as the U.S. is considered the favorite, and struggling Mexico must still be respected as a threat, this year’s field has several teams who could shake up the tournament. Teams such as Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica, and even a small nation like Haiti could cause problems in this Gold Cup.
Does that mean we should expect Belize to push the U.S. to the brink tonight? Not really, but with a sold-out crowd in Portland ready to cheer on the U.S. fans and remind us all why they have some of the best soccer fans in America, the Group C doubleheader on tap tonight should offer similar passion to what we saw at Red Bull Arena on Monday.
No, the 2013 Gold Cup isn’t loaded with big stars, and can’t honestly be compared to an event like the World Cup, but that doesn’t change the fact that the tournament still stirs passions all across the region, and still matters to the players competing in it, and the fans packing stadiums across the country to see it.