While it didn’t have rows of fishbowls filled with ping-ping balls and an all-star cast of the region’s best players, the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup draw still provided some dramatics as the 12 participating teams were placed into the tournament’s three four-team groups.
The United States as hosts, Mexico as defending Gold Cup champions, and Honduras as the current Central American Cup holders were assigned as the top seed in each of the three groups. The remaining eight slots were announced by CONCACAF General Secretary Philippe Moggio to a gathering of representatives from every qualified country video a big video board erected in the Brocade Club at Levi’s Stadium, the site of the 2017 Gold Cup Final on July 26.
Group A will consist of Honduras, perennial power Costa Rica, erstwhile champions Canada, and tournament newcomers French Guiana. Group A play will begin on July 7 when Canada against French Guiana and Honduras facing Costa Rica in a doubleheader at Red Bull Arena.
Group B is highlighted by the U.S. national team, which will be joined by 2015 Gold Cup runners up Panama, Caribbean French department Martinique, and the winner of a play-in home-and-away tie between Haiti and Nicaragua to be played later this month. Group B begins with an anticipated repeat of the contentious 2015 Gold Cup semifinal match between the USA and Panama when the four team converge on July 8 in Nashville.
Group C is led by defending champions Mexico, who are joined by El Salvador, Curacao, and Jamaica, in what is easily the weakest group of the three. El Tri, the CONCACAF representative in this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, open its tournament against El Salvador on July 9 in San Diego, ensuring a very pro-Mexico crowd.
Following the draw, and a long photo session with all the major officials, the Gold Cup trophy, and the participating nations’ coaches, first reactions to the group assignments were shared.
For U.S. head coach Bruce Arena, the match-up with Panama is “going to be challenging,” while he admitted to not knowing much about the other teams in Group B. Highlight’s of Arena’s reactions also indicate that the U.S. coach views 2017 as critical in the team’s efforts to move past the Jurgen Klinsmann years: “A perfect year would end with us qualified for the World Cup as well as winners of the Gold Cup.”
The summer tournament comes at the end of the European seasons, so U.S. players from those leagues will be drained, and Arena will have some tough decisions on who to add to his Gold Cup roster. Fortunately, MLS will be in hitting its peak in July, and players from the league will be in mid-season form.
“That is somewhat of an advantage for us,” said Arena. “Hopefully we can be smart about how we utilize all the players on our roster during the year.”
In January, the U.S. held its annual training camp in Southern California, and this year the roster consisted of all but one player from MLS. David Bingham and Chris Wondolowski, both who play for the San Jose Earthquakes just down the road from Levi’s at Avaya Stadium, were in the mix, as well as many other MLS stars.
“Yeah, there were a number of guys that caught my eye that we will certainly consider for the Gold Cup,” said Arena, “but again that tournament is still four months away and a lot of things can happen between now and then.”
Arena has two sets of World Cup qualifiers to deal with before the Gold Cup kicks off in July, so he said those games will be his priorities for now. The U.S. national team currently sits last in the six-team Hexagonal after two games, and the Yanks will need to rally into the top three if they want to automatically advance to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia next year.
Looking to the north, the other MLS nation did not see as much luck in the Gold Cup draw. Canada’s interim head coach Michael Findlay, who took over the program when former coach Benito Floro was fired following the team’s elimination from World Cup qualifying back in September, was rather sanguine given the challenges Group A presents.
“This is our regional championship, so absolutely we are highly motivated and highly interested in being successful,” shared Findlay moments after learning Canada would need to get through Honduras and Costa Rica in group play this summer.
Findlay went into more detail about the challenges Canadian soccer faces after years of faltering on the biggest stages. Canada won the Gold Cup back in 2000 and remains the only nation other than the U.S. and Mexico to lift the CONCACAF championship trophy, but success in recent years has been hard to come by.
“We’ve established since the change in coaching in September our strategic plan and our objectives and outcomes with regards to this group of players,” said Findlay. “We are in a transitional phase because we were unfortunately eliminated from the Hex. We immediately, along with our senior management, decided what will 2017 look like.”
Findlay, who has years of experience as an assistant coach in many levels of Canadian soccer, is not guaranteed to be the coach when the Gold Cup arrives in July, but that will not stop him in looking for the right players to represent Canada this summer and going forward, including those currently in MLS.
“We’ve made very specific moves to assess the players in all the environments they’re in, one of them being MLS,” said Findlay. “We are being very specific in terms of how we are assessing those players. It is our hope that those players are playing valuable minutes in MLS. It’s the greatest challenge that Canadian football has is for our players to be playing valuable minutes. If they are in those environments and they are getting those quality minutes it can only help us in the long run.
“We need to encourage all of our players to continue their competitive nature to earn those minutes, and hopefully MLS and the MLS teams will reward them by playing them. If they are not playing, then we have to make sure we are selecting players that are playing and are at the top of their game and they are going to contribute to our success in the 2017 Gold Cup.”