CONCACAF Gold Cup raises the stakes

Landon Donovan of the U.S., shown pursuing the ball against Guatemala's Enoc Vasquez, sees the Gold Cup as an opportunity to help himself to a World Cup spot.
(Jeff Gross / Getty Images)

Bud Selig, say hello to Jeffrey Webb.

A decade ago Selig, the commissioner of baseball, addressed the flagging interest and growing irrelevance of his sport’s midseason All-Star game by linking the result of the exhibition to home-field advantage in the World Series.


A propaganda blitz and hundreds of millions of advertising dollars later, the idea still hasn’t generated much more interest in the game.

Webb, president of CONCACAF, the 41-nation Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean soccer associations, is hoping he’ll have more success breathing new life into the biennial Gold Cup tournament.

This summer’s 12-team tournament kicks off Sunday with a Group A doubleheader at the Rose Bowl featuring Mexico, the two-time defending champion, against Panama and Canada taking on Martinique. The U.S., in Group C, plays its first match Tuesday against Belize in Portland, Ore.

Under the old format, the winner of the first Gold Cup in each World Cup cycle represented CONCACAF in the prestigious — and lucrative — Confederations Cup, a kind of dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Win the tournament two years later, though, and all you got was a warm pat on the back.

That seemed odd to Webb, who last year replaced Jack Warner as CONCACAF president after Warner resigned amid charges of corruption and bribery. So Webb made some changes designed to raise the profile of the Gold Cup, the confederation’s main moneymaker and one that pays the bills for many of CONCACAF’s soccer development activities.

First he increased the winning team’s prize fivefold, to $1 million. But more important, he also established a Confederations Cup qualifying match to be played once every four years between the champions of the last two Gold Cups.

Win the Gold Cup, no matter the year, and get a chance to move on to the Confederations Cup and earn at least $1.7 million more.

“Not one Gold Cup should be more important than the other,” said Webb. “So we’ve created a process now that each winner of each Gold Cup has an opportunity to play in a Confederations Cup. It’s not a one-off tournament per se. This qualifies you.”

If the same country were to win the tournament twice in a four-year World Cup cycle, the qualification match would be scrapped. But that’s happened just once in the Confederations Cup era.

“Obviously this is a very interesting time period now coming up,” U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. “That is a competition that you want to win because it’s upgraded to a possible entrance in the Confederations Cup. It has a big meaning to us.”

But it’s not the biggest event in the region this summer, which has influenced how some of the 12 competing teams have been put together. Because the Gold Cup begins just three weeks after the June phase of World Cup qualifying ended, Klinsmann and Mexican Coach Jose Manuel de la Torre did not call up any of their European-based regulars. That means no Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard or Jermaine Jones for the U.S. and no Chicharito Hernandez, Giovani dos Santos or Andres Guardado for Mexico.

That’s created a huge opportunity for their replacements to prove themselves on a big stage — especially for Mexico, which struggled mightily in World Cup qualifying, then called up an inexperienced Gold Cup roster featuring just two players who have played in as many as 10 international matches and only four who have ever scored for the national team.

So while the U.S. beat Guatemala, 6-0, in its only Gold Cup tuneup — the national team’s most one-sided win since June 2008 — Mexico’s young squad lost two exhibitions to Mexican clubs, including a 1-0 decision to second-division Cruz Azul Hidalgo.

“It’s the confederation’s tournament and because of that it has meaning,” said Chivas forward Marco Fabian, who helped Mexico to an Olympic title last summer. “We understand clearly the great opportunity we have in front of us. We have to demonstrate our abilities. We have to demonstrate them to ourselves, the coaching staff and the rest of the country.

“It’s an honor to be here.”

Many of Klinsmann’s players share that view — especially ones such as Oguchi Onyewu and the Galaxy’s Landon Donovan, who see this tournament as a chance to redeem themselves and win back a spot on the national team before next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

“For everyone here it’s an opportunity,” said Donovan, who scored twice in the win over Guatemala. “I want to win the tournament. I take this tournament very seriously. I’m very proud to be a part of this team and we want to be successful.”