Gold Hunting: BTSVancity’s 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup preview

The 2021 Gold Cup kicks off this weekend. Here is our preview of the tournament, the 16th edition of North America’s biggest men’s international soccer competition. 

As is tradition every 2 years, some of CONCACAF’s finest are ready to do battle for North American supremacy once again. 

After there were fears that the tournament might not happen at all, the 2021 Gold Cup is set to kick off this weekend, as 15 of CONCACAF’s best (plus a special guest) will clash down in the US, with the goal to lift a trophy that only 3 teams have ever lifted in 15 prior editions of the tournament. 

Of course, if you also include the CONCACAF Championship, the predecessor to the Gold Cup, that list grows to 7 teams, but since the creation of the Gold Cup in 1991, this tournament has essentially been held by a duopoly, led by Mexico (8 titles) and the US (6 titles). 

Plus, since Canada shocked onlookers to win the 2000 Gold Cup, there has now been a run of 10 straight tournaments where either Mexico or the US have won, showing off their status as the current powerhouses of the region. 

So ultimately, the question always reigns heading into this tournament, as always, and that is – is this the year where someone displaces them? 

Can Canada revive memories of 21 years ago? Will Jamaica finally overcome the hump of making the final twice in the last 3 editions? Can Costa Rica find the magic they always seem to have in World Cup qualifiers? Will Honduras and El Salvador manage to live up to the status of plucky underdogs that they always manage to hold? Or will a team that we haven’t even talked about yet emerge from the shadows? 

Who knows, but as the last few years have shown, upsets are becoming more of a regular occurrence in this region, so if there’s a year where something out of the ordinary might occur, this tournament might be the best bet, especially considering all that teams have gone through to get to this point. 

So with all of that in mind, here is a preview of the tournament, as we look at what to expect from the latest edition of North America’s marquee men’s football tournament. 

In a region that never fails to entertain, this tournament should provide that in spades, as it always does, helping mark an already memorable summer of soccer that is just getting started. 

Format:

But returning to the semantics, it’s worth noting that when it’s mentioned that it’s taken a journey just to get to this point, we mean it. 

Aside from the pandemic that nearly threw a wrench into the tournament’s plans to go ahead as expected, there’s also the fact that this is the first edition of the Gold Cup where every CONCACAF team had to actually qualify for the tournament. 

By abolishing the old system, which gave 3 spots to the North American Football Union, consisting of just Canada, the US and Mexico, there was a more just qualification system put in place ahead of 2021, one based around Nations League play. 

Thanks to that, all 15 CONCACAF teams at this tournament had to undergo some sort of qualification process, which is new for this tournament. 

There is a guest 16th team at this tournament that didn’t have to qualify, Qatar, who were invited to get preparation before hosting the 2022 World Cup next winter, but other than that, everyone had to earn their stripes to get here. 

That doesn’t mean that the road was completely smooth on the way to this point, however, as one team didn’t get their fair shot at making it all the way, Cuba, who missed out on the preliminary tournament that was held last week for the last 3 spots in the Gold Cup due to visa issues, but other than that, every other team managed to get a pretty fair shot at making the competition. 

And unfortunately, Cuba was not the only team to have a rocky road this past week, either, as Curacao also had to pull out the eve of the competition due to a COVID outbreak, leaving Guatemala to replace them. 

Other than that, though, all of the other teams have mostly managed to get by without any major issues, which should hopefully allow the tournament to get off without a hitch. 

And speaking of the tournament, it’s important to highlight the format for this edition of the competition, as all participants have a pretty straightforward route to the final. 

For the 2nd edition ever, there are 16 teams at the Gold Cup, up from the 12 that used to participate, with those 16 teams split up into 4 groups of 4. 

From there, they play every one in their group once for a total of 3 games, with the top 2 teams from each group advancing to the quarter-finals. 

After that, it’s just one-game knockouts all the way to the final, held in Las Vegas, where the winner will bring home the trophy as winners of the 16th edition of the Gold Cup. 

To get more of a visual look at what that looks like, here is the official bracket, which comes via CONCACAF. 

Disclaimer: This graphic was made before Guatemala replaced Curacao in Group A. 

So for an eventual winner, 6 games is the magic number, but it is worth noting that with the creation of the preliminary round, the results of which are reflected in the graphic, some teams have already played 2 competitive games at the tournament, which could give them a leg-up on some teams. 

Other than that, the only other important detail to point out is that this tournament is being held in the United States for the 16th time in a row, as the US has always at least been a co-host, and in most years, such as this one, they’ve featured as the main (and only) hosts. 

Some have hoped for a change, one that can hopefully come sooner rather than later, but it’s worth pointing that out as it can give them a distinct home advantage for some of their games. 

But moving on, here is a quick look at all of this summer’s Gold Cup participants, seeing what to expect from them. 

Group A: El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago

And to start, Group A is quite the tough one, as Mexico is the obvious favourites, but they’ve been drawn with 3 plucky CONCACAF veterans in El Salvador, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago. 

Having won the last Gold Cup, Mexico is going to have a target on their back, and their 3 opponents will try to trip them up at every opportunity, meaning that Tata Martino’s side will have to be on their A-game throughout the group stage. 

To start, El Salvador is the prime candidate to emerge from the group along with Mexico, as they’re fresh off of making the Octagonal, the final round of World Cup qualifiers, having gone undefeated across 6 games in the first 2 rounds this year to make it that far. 

Otherwise, though, Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala are both wild cards, as they both surprisingly exited in the first round of qualifiers, both in tough fashion. 

Trinidad and Tobago was the bigger upset, as they missed out to an upstart St. Kitts and Nevis team in the first round, as draws to Puerto Rico and the Bahamas left them with too much of a deficit to overcome heading into the final day, leaving them to miss out on the Octo. They made up for their disappointment by rolling through the preliminary round, beating French Guiana on penalties to make the Gold Cup, but they don’t look like the famed T&T team of old that used to terrorize teams in CONCACAF. 

As for Guatemala, their exit from World Cup qualifiers was even tougher to swallow, as they were only bested by Curacao on goals for, as both teams had 10 points and a +15 goal difference, but Curacao had scored one more goal than them in their other games, putting them through. To rub salt in the wound, Guatemala then flamed out of the preliminaries in even more spectacular fashion, as they were upset by Guadeloupe on penalties, only earning their qualification as the top-ranked team from the preliminaries when they needed a Curacao replacement. 

So with that, look for a tense battle for the 2nd spot, but expect Mexico to dominate this group overall, as they look to win back-to-back tournaments. 

Group B: Canada, Haiti, Martinique, United States

Moving on, Group B should be a tense one, as Canada and the US will look to revive their rivalry, while Haiti will have a lot to prove to their Canadian foes after being knocked out of World Cup qualifiers by them in June. 

To start, the US are favourites, despite bringing more of an MLS-heavy squad that left some of their biggest names at home, as this wouldn’t be the first time where they’ve brought a supposed ‘weakened’ squad and still gotten to the finals. Plus with the advantage of playing at home, that’ll give them a boost that most teams can’t provide, especially with how hard travel is for Canadian and Haitian fans right now, as an example. 

But don’t be surprised if Canada gives them a run for their money, either. Despite missing a few key pieces, they’ve still brought as strong of a squad as they were able to, availabilities permitting, as they both look to break their trophy drought and prepare for their return to the Octo, a stage they haven’t made it to since 1997, in the fall. 

Otherwise, Haiti is the wildcard, as they famously upset Canada in the quarter-finals of the 2019 tournament, before bringing eventual champions Mexico to extra time, showing their quality as potential underdogs. Having lost to Canada to miss out on the Octo, they’ve also come into this tournament hungry to win, as they’ve trained non-stop in the US since the elimination in preparation of the tournament, and that showed in the preliminaries, as they rolled through both of their matches. 

Lastly, Martinique is a tough one to gauge, as they come in as clear underdogs in this tough group, but they’re always good for a scare or two, as Mexico nearly learned in a tight 3-2 win in 2019. With some decent star power in their team, Martinique can be hard to put out if they’re allowed to grow into the game, which has to be a priority for the other sides if they want to avoid an upset. 

Group C: Costa Rica, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Suriname

Then, as is the case for all of the groups in this tournament, we’ve got another very balanced Group C, as all 4 teams will certainly believe that they can progress. 

Having made the final in the past 2 of the 3 tournaments, Jamaica is a favourite, as is Costa Rica, who has made 4 of the past 5 World Cups.

They’re two teams in very different spots, as Jamaica’s continued to rely on a growing crop of young talent, and have started to make good inroads with dual-nationals, while Costa Rica main group has slowly started to age out, but as they’ve shown in the past, they’re still a stiff test on their day. 

Elsewhere, Suriname is the wild card of the group, and arguably the tournament of a whole, as they’ve recruited an absurd number of dual-nationals recently, helping them make all sorts of noise at World Cup qualifiers, where they only were eliminated by Canada on the last matchday of round 1. As their group continues to grow together, having only really played together for a handful of games this year, they’ll be a team to watch both in the future, but also at this tournament. 

Lastly, Guadeloupe is an interesting one to watch, as they upset Guatemala in the preliminaries to get here, allowing them to qualify for the Gold Cup for just the 4th time in their history, and first since 2011. They might not have the star power of the other 3 teams in their group, but as they showed earlier this month, they’re a very organized unit, and have been on a rise as of late, having earned a promotion to League B from League C in the inaugural edition of the Nations League. 

Ultimately, anything but Costa Rica and Jamaica advancing would be seen as a huge shock, but Suriname and Guadeloupe certainly have the ability to throw those plans out the window, making this a tough group to call. 

Group D: Grenada, Honduras, Panama, Qatar

And then last, but most definitely not least, there’s group D, which is definitely the most wide-open group of the tournament, without a doubt. 

To start, there’s Honduras, who always tend to show up for CONCACAF tournaments, but are reeling after finishing last in their group at the 2019 Gold Cup. They have qualified for the Octo, and did better than anyone expected at the Nations League, winning their group and giving the US a good run for their money in the semi-finals of that tournament in June, but what’s clear is that this isn’t the Honduras of old. 

Then, there’s fellow Octo participants, Panama, who managed to get past Curacao to return to the final round of World Cup qualifiers after having made the World Cup for the first time in their history in the last cycle in 2018. Much like Honduras, they’re an ageing team, so it’s hard to project which version of them we’ll see at the Gold Cup, but as they showed in World Cup qualifiers, they can still be a tough team to beat on their day. 

Otherwise, there’s an interesting Grenada team, who qualified by winning their Nations League B group (earning promotion to League A in the process), allowing them to participate at their 3rd Gold Cup, and first since 2011. Having gotten past French Guiana and St.Kitts and Nevis to do so, this Grenada team will have the belief that they can surprise Panama or Honduras and get out of the group stages for the first time. 

But while Honduras and Panama are favourites to progress, and Grenada will feel like they also have a shot of getting through, invitees Qatar might actually be the best team in this group, as they’re fresh off of winning the Asian Cup for the first time in 2019, and put up a decent account of themselves at the Copa America as an invited team later that year, despite finishing 10th out of 12 teams. 

Because of that, it wouldn’t be a surprise to actually see Qatar, not Honduras or Panama, win this group, leaving them to fight for a 2nd place spot. Qatar isn’t versed with the reality of playing CONCACAF teams, which is a whole different beast, but they’re undefeated in 7 games in 2021 for a reason. 

So with that in mind, don’t be surprised if they shake up what seemed like a clear group hierarchy that originally placed Panama and Honduras as favourites, with Grenada still always remaining as a potential upset threat. 

Predictions:

But having gone through all of that, as we tend to do for these sorts of events, here’s how our BTSVancity team thinks that the tournament will go. 

For reference, we did this ahead of the 2019 tournament, so if you want to see how we fared then, you can check that out. 

Once again, in case you’ve forgotten, here is how the bracket goes down. 

And without further ado, here’s what our team is thinking. 

Alex: 

Group Stages: Group A: Mexico, El Salvador. Group B: Canada, US. Group C: Jamaica, Suriname. Group D: Qatar, Honduras. 

Quarter-finals: Qatar defeats El Salvador. Canada defeats Suriname. Mexico defeats Honduras. Jamaica defeats US. 

Semi-finals: Canada defeats Qatar. Mexico defeats Jamaica. 

Final: Mexico defeats Canada. 

Ben: 

Group Stages: Group A: Mexico, El Salvador. Group B: Canada, US. Group C: Costa Rica, Suriname. Group D: Honduras, Panama

Quarter-finals: Honduras defeats El Salvador. Canada defeats Suriname. Mexico defeats Panama. US defeats Costa Rica.

Semi-finals: Canada defeats Honduras. Mexico defeats US. 

Final: Mexico defeats Canada. 

Felix: 

Group Stages: Group A: Mexico, El Salvador. Group B: Canada, US. Group C: Jamaica, Suriname. Group D: Qatar, Honduras. 

Quarter-finals: Qatar defeats El Salvador. Canada defeats Suriname. Mexico defeats Honduras. US defeats Jamaica.

Semi-finals: Qatar defeats Canada. Mexico defeats US. 

Final: Mexico defeats Qatar.

Looking Forward:

So now, the tournament will officially get underway Saturday night at 19:00 Pacific Time, as Mexico will take on Trinidad and Tobago to kick off the Gold Cup. 

From there, expect a few weeks of drama, high-quality football and potentially a few upsets along the way, marking another special edition of the tournament. 

Will there finally be a new champion of the tournament?

It’s still too early to tell, but at the very least, the road to the final promises to be a fun one, as it has been to date. 

Cover Photo via: Abel Arciniega/Canada Soccer

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