Soccer

CONCACAF to start Gold Cup competition under a dark cloud

A year after the most successful World Cup in confederation history, CONCACAF, the organization overseeing soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, should still be celebrating.

It sent four teams to that World Cup in Brazil and three of them advanced out of group play, with Costa Rica reaching the quarterfinals. And in the Women's World Cup, which concluded Sunday, Canada reached the quarterfinals and the U.S. won the tournament.

CONCACAF's next big event is the 12-team, 19-day Gold Cup tournament that kicks off Tuesday. The opening doubleheader is in suburban Dallas, where the U.S. meets Honduras, a 2014 World Cup qualifier, and Panama plays Haiti. On Wednesday, Costa Rica plays Jamaica and El Salvador faces Canada at the StubHub Center, and Mexico begins play Thursday in Chicago against Cuba. Trinidad and Tobago takes on Guatemala in the first game there.

But at a time when CONCACAF should be emblematic of great soccer, for many people it represents something else.

Greed. Corruption. Fraud. Racketeering.

When the Justice Department unsealed in May its 47-count indictment against nine global soccer officials, four of them were affiliated with CONCACAF. One, Jeffrey Webb, was the organization's president and another, Jack Warner, was a former president.

Chuck Blazer, the group's former general secretary, wore a wire for the FBI and gathered the evidence that helped prosecutors build their case, one that could wind its way through the courts and embarrass CONCACAF for years.

"It's not going away. It's not going to vanish," said Ted Howard, a former college player and coach who was appointed acting general secretary in a CONCACAF restructuring shortly after the indictments.

Last weekend, CONCACAF's executive committee approved additional measures designed to reform and strengthen the group's governance and management.

"Our important task is to stay focused on what we have," Howard said. "Because that's our core business."

And that core business appears to be doing very well despite the scandal because advance tickets for the Gold Cup tournament sold at a record pace. More than 300,000 tickets for the tournament have been bought. The opening doubleheader near Dallas is sold out.

At stake in the tournament is a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, a kind of World Cup dress rehearsal featuring the champions of FIFA's six confederations plus the host country and Germany, the reigning World Cup champion.

If the U.S. successfully defends the Gold Cup title it won two years ago, it will represent CONCACAF in the Russian tournament. If not, it will play the winner in a one-game playoff in early October to decide the region's representative.

The U.S. last played in the Confederations Cup six years ago in South Africa, where it finished second.

"We are under the expectations of winning this tournament," said U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, whose team is unbeaten in its last five games, among them victories over Mexico, the Netherlands and Germany. "Even if we know that teams like Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico all are very good teams and can also beat us, you've got to be on top of things.

"You've got to be very disciplined, you've got to be focused and in a CONCACAF tournament you've got to be patient."

Sixteen players on the U.S. roster, including forwards Jozy Altidore and Chris Dempsey, midfielder Michael Bradley and Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, were on the World Cup team last summer. And the newcomers include Galaxy midfielder Gyasi Zardes.

The U.S. has reached the final of the last five Gold Cup tournaments, winning three. They've met Mexico in the final in three of the last five tournaments but Mexico goes into this year's event winless in its last seven games.

Mexico will be without forward Javier Hernandez, who broke his collarbone in the team's scoreless tie with Honduras last week.

"We expect most of the teams to play against us in a very defensive style," Klinsmann said. "It's not going to be an open game like in a World Cup, where you have the best teams in the world and they just go at you. In most of our games in the Gold Cup, it's going to be the opposite."

Whatever the U.S. learns from those games it can put to use in the fall when CONCACAF's next big tournament, the World Cup qualifier, starts.

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