Gold Cup Knockout Round Preview
Eight teams remain in the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, with the quarterfinals slated for Saturday and Sunday. While the group stage featured some surprises, the bracket is shaping up how many expected. Ahead of this weekend's matches, here is one thing on each of the remaining teams in the tournament.
Qatar - A Relative Unknown
The hosts of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar was invited as a guest nation for this year's Gold Cup. Every member of the national team plays their club soccer in the Qatar Stars League (QSL), the domestic league in the country. No other team in the tournament has a player from the QSL, and Qatar has not played any meaningful international matches since 2019, when they won the Asian Cup. These factors have contributed to a bit of unknown about the Arab nation before the tournament. This allowed Qatar to shock Group D as they finished first with seven points, including victories over Honduras and Grenada.
El Salvador - Consistent in the Back
While Qatar has scored nine goals this tournament, their quarterfinal opponents, El Salvador, have been just as impressive defensively. They shutout Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago and only conceded one goal to a quality Mexican side that is the favorite to win the tournament. Qatar has scored consistently against teams on par with El Salvador, so this is El Salvador's chance to prove that they are a quality defensive squad. For a country who has not been to the World Cup since 1982, getting a result against Qatar on Saturday off of a strong defensive performance will go a long way towards their confidence for World Cup qualifying, which begins in only six weeks.
USA - A Test of Depth
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter made it clear well before this tournament that he was going to break from the rest of the field and not bring his best roster to the tournament. Berhalter has chosen to give his star players a break from competition so they can rest over the off-season in Europe. This also allows him to understand the depth of his squad, especially ahead of a condensed World Cup qualifying schedule. In order to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, the U.S. will need up to thirty players to step up and contribute. Berhalter's squad for the Gold Cup allows the players around eighteen to thirty on the depth chart to see meaningful, competitive minutes. A good performance in the knockout stage from a young squad will prove that they have what it takes to help the rest of their teammates on the path to qualification next year.
Jamaica - Unconvincing Against Quality Opponents
Jamaica has always been a consistent challenger in Concacaf competitions, but so far have struggled against better teams. They qualified for the knockout round off of victories over Suriname and Guadeloupe, two of the weaker countries in the tournament. When matched up against a better team in Costa Rica, they crumbled and could not produce a goal despite nineteen shots in the match. While the U.S. did not bring their "A" team to the tournament, the Jamaicans will still be the weaker team come Sunday. It will be interesting to see how well they perform and if they can overcome the talent gap for the first time this tournament.
Mexico - Being the Juggernaut
While they do not have all of their best players at the Gold Cup, Mexico still has many of their preferred pieces. They are the clear favorite entering the competition, and it is up to them to show that. Mexico expects to win this tournament every time they enter, and this year is no exception. With a trophy or bust mentality, they need to get off on the right foot this Saturday with a convincing win over Honduras. Given how good of a team coach Tata Martino has, his squad should be winning comfortably in order to prove they are the juggernauts of Concacaf that should beat any country on any occasion.
Honduras - Building off of Nations League
In the inaugural Nations League finals in June, Honduras was tenacious in a 1-0 loss to the U.S. and then impressive in a penalty shootout victory over Costa Rica. Their success at the competition in Denver paves the way for them to do well in the Gold Cup and the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. While they have a tough draw versus Mexico in the quarterfinals, they showed their potential at Nations League to be able to shock the region. A victory on Saturday, even if they do not go on to win the tournament, will show that the Hondurans have made the jump to legitimate Concacaf contenders.
Costa Rica - Trying to Still Compete
The Costa Ricans have an aging national team core, raising concerns that they will be passed over by younger, better teams in the region. Despite their age, the team has shown an ability to still compete with anyone in the region. They took both Mexico and Honduras to penalties during Nations League, and they were solid in this tournament's group stage, winning all three of their matches. Their quarterfinal opponent, Canada, is an example of a younger country looking to overtake Costa Rica in the regional pecking order. If the Ticos wants to stay on top and continue to qualify for World Cups, they will need to perform well in the knockout stage to show Canada who is still the best in Concacaf.
Canada - An Opportunity for the Taking
The Canadians have always been on the fringe of Concacaf success, but have never been able to get over the hump. This fall they will be in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time in 25 years, so a strong Gold Cup performance will allow them to show that they are ready to take the next step forward. Part of the reason why Canada has not quite moved into the top tier in the region is because they have lacked consistent performances, so the knockout round is an opportunity for them to string together multiple solid performances as they look to the future.
Saturday's quarterfinal matches will be played at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Qatar-El Salvador kick off at 7:30 pm eastern, with Mexico-Honduras following at 10:00. Sunday's games will be at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Costa Rica-Canada starts at 7:00 pm eastern, with USA-Jamaica next at 9:30.