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Column: Gold Cup longshots closing gap on powerhouses

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Mexico’s Rodolfo Pizarro, center, celebrates a goal with teammates Orbelin Pineda, left, and Jesus Gallardo during a Gold Cup match against Honduras on July 20.
(Norm Hall / Getty Images)

The latest edition of the CONCACAF Gold Cup began earlier this month the same way it always does, with a 14-team field full of unlikely longshots such as Canada, Nicaragua, French Guiana, Curacao and Martinique.

And if Mexico can get past Jamaica in Sunday’s semifinal at the Rose Bowl (FS1, Univision, 6 p.m.), the tournament will also end the way it usually does too, with El Tri meeting the U.S. in Wednesday’s final in Santa Clara.

With the U.S. advancing to the championship game by beating Costa Rica 2-0 on Saturday, this year’s tournament marks the ninth consecutive time either Mexico or the U.S. has made the final. Three times in the last five Gold Cup finals, they’ve faced one another and together they’ve combined to win the tournament 12 times.

CONCACAF’s other 39 countries have combined to win it just once.

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But there are also ways in which this year’s tournament has been different. And that could bode well for the future of many national team programs.

“These smaller countries in CONCACAF have improved considerably,” said U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who last managed in a Gold Cup in 2005. “Watching some of these players with the smaller countries is very impressive. They all play a pretty good style. I’ve been very impressed.

“The gap has closed a little bit, which is good for CONCACAF, good for the tournament.”

Consider the fact tiny Martinique made it to the tournament for just the second time in 14 years, winning one game and holding the U.S. even for 76 minutes of a group-play match. Curacao, making its Gold Cup debut — it last played in the CONCACAF Championships, a precursor to the Gold Cup, in 1973 — went home winless but it, too, impressed, holding Mexico to just a goal into stoppage time.

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Canada is enjoying a soccer renaissance as well. Until this summer it hadn’t advanced out of group play since 2009 and hadn’t won a Gold Cup game since 2011. This year it did both, with 16-year-old Alphonso Davies of the Vancouver Whitecaps scoring three times to carry the country into the quarterfinals.

That made Davies the youngest player to score in a Gold Cup match and the first player born this century to score in a top international tournament. It also made him the tournament’s leading scorer, a distinction he shares with Martinique’s Kevin Parsemain.

Canada’s Cyle Larin credits former national team coach Benito Floro for helping turn the program around.

“He changed the structure,” Larin said of Floro, who was sacked last summer after failing to get Canada into the final round of World Cup qualifiers. “Looking forward we have great young players. That’s what we need.”

Another player who impressed is Nicaraguan goalkeeper Justo Lorente. Although Lorente gave up seven goals in the tournament, he also faced 49 shots — 30 of them on goal — and he came up big against the U.S., stopping two penalty shots. That could get the 23-year-old, who plays for Real Esteli in the Nicaraguan first division, some attention from MLS clubs.

“He was great. No question,” said former U.S. standout Landon Donovan, who called that game for Fox Sports. “I’m sure teams will think about it and be interested.”

It wouldn’t be the first time. Four years ago, Panamanian keeper Jaime Penedo was playing for Guatemalan club Municipal when he had a sensational game against Mexico in a Gold Cup semifinal. Two weeks later he signed with the Galaxy.

But now that the minnows have gone home, the tournament has once again been turned over to the usual suspects. And Mexico comes into Sunday’s semifinal at the Rose Bowl with momentum but without its coach.

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El Tri, 3-0-1 in the tournament, is riding a 10-game unbeaten streak in Gold Cup play dating to a semifinal loss to Panama in 2013. Add in its 9-0-3 record in World Cup qualifiers and a 2015 win over the U.S. in the CONCACAF Cup, and Mexico is unbeaten in 23 consecutive continental tournament games.

The reigning Gold Cup champions will be facing a familiar foe in Jamaica. The teams met in the group stage earlier this month and played to a scoreless draw in a game Mexico dominated. They also met in the 2015 tournament final, a game Mexico won 3-1.

That proved to be the last game for Mexican coach Miguel Herrera, who got into an altercation with a TV reporter at the airport the next day, leading to his dismissal. Three months later Colombian Juan Carlos Orosio took over and Mexico is 25-4-6 since then.

But Osorio has had to watch this Gold Cup from the stands after being suspended six matches for aggressive behavior toward the officials during Mexico’s final game in the Confederations Cup in Russia.

He is still running the practices, picking the lineups and planning the game strategy. But he’s not allowed in the technical area during matches, leaving much of the tactical minutiae — Osorio’s specialty — to assistant Luis Pompilio Paez, his longtime lieutenant.

That’s frustrated Osorio in other ways, too, since he’s had to watch his young team — Mexico’s Gold Cup roster included 17 players who entered the tournament with fewer than 10 international caps, and 11 are 25 or younger — from afar rather than from the sideline.

“Needless to say it’s a very difficult situation,” he said. “I enjoy very much being … next to the players.

“One of the things I enjoy most overall is working with this new generation of players,” he said. “I continue thinking we have a very good group of talented young players who are the future of Mexican soccer.”

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With the emergence of players like Davies of Canada and Lorente of Nicaragua, Osorio could soon say the same about the future of CONCACAF.

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Arrive Early

With a crowd of more than 40,000 expected at the Rose Bowl for Sunday’s Mexico-Jamaica semifinal, officials are asking fans to arrive early or use public transportation to avoid traffic. Parking lots and a “Futbol Fiesta” in Lot H will open at 2 p.m. and stadium gates will open at 4:30, 90 minutes ahead of the scheduled kickoff.

Clear Bag Policy

Following the lead of the Galaxy and other teams, Rose Bowl officials will enforce a “clear bag” policy Sunday. Bags that do not meet the following criteria will not be allowed into the venue:

-- Clear plastic, vinyl or PVC not exceeding 12” x 6” by 12”

-- One-gallon freezer bags (Ziploc or similar)

-- Small clutch bags approximately the size of a hand will also be permitted.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11


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