Gold Cup quarterfinals: Will USMNT, Mexico fend off CONCACAF challengers?


The CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals are upon us, with defending champions Mexico and fellow co-favorites United States navigating some stern tests during group stage action.

Joined by Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Canada, and invitees Qatar in the knockout round, El Tri and the USMNT will face further challenges if they are to get to the Aug. 1 final in Las Vegas.

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ESPN looks at the upcoming matchups and what should be expected from this weekend’s clashes.

Jump to: United States vs. Jamaica | Mexico vs. Honduras | Qatar vs. El Salvador | Costa Rica vs. Canada

United States vs. Jamaica

When: Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET (Arlington, Texas)

Form guide: USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter brought a young group to the Gold Cup, and yet like many of its predecessors, took maximum points from its three group stage games. That doesn’t mean the path has been easy.

While the U.S. easily dispatched Martinique 6-1 in the second match, it made harder work of getting by Haiti and Canada, each by 1-0 scorelines. The U.S. is a bit dinged up as well, with veteran defender Walker Zimmerman out with a hamstring injury, midfielder Paul Arriola suffering from a similar ailment, and forward Daryl Dike struggling with a shoulder injury.

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The loss of Zimmerman is problematic in that it makes an already thin corps of center backs even thinner. That said, the defense has impressed, with Miles Robinson, James Sands and Sam Vines playing beyond their years. Shaq Moore has restated his case for future inclusion with the U.S.

Further up the field, the performances have been more mixed, especially in terms of managing games. Now that the knockout stages have arrived, it won’t get any easier.

Following 2-0 and 2-1 wins over Suriname and Guadeloupe, respectively, a 1-0 defeat to Costa Rica in the group stage finale meant the Reggae Boyz finished second in Group C. The last result was harsh on Jamaica given the number of chances it squandered, with Andre Gray among the most profligate. But this was also a match in which manager Theodore Whitmore rested much of his first choice squad, which was done in part to avoid yellow card suspensions.

When available, Jamaica’s starting lineup has looked dynamic at times going forward — with Leon Bailey, Shamar Nicholson and the Philadelphia Union‘s Cory Burke catching the eye. The defense has been solid, and the Union’s Andre Blake looking impressive in goal when called upon.

How it will play out: The U.S will want to do better in terms of controlling the game’s tempo. That was an issue against Haiti and especially Canada, and given the uncertainty along the back line, an edge in possession will help shield a unit that lacks experience. The big question is whether the reduced options in the back means that Berhalter will go with a four-man backline or keep going with the three center-back alignment.

The home side will also want to limit transition opportunities, where Bailey and Co. can attack the U.S. at speed. Bailey’s likely matchup with Vines will be one to watch, though both Vines and Moore will also be looking to get forward and help pin Jamaica back.

For Jamaica, finishing has been an issue, though when they’ve converted, they’ve tended to be spectacular. The expectation has also been that Jamaica should keep possession better, but it has done well enough to advance. An athletic, experienced Jamaica side will give the U.S. all it can handle, especially in transition. — Jeff Carlisle

Mexico vs. Honduras

When: Saturday, 10:00 p.m. ET (Glendale, Ariz.)

Form guide: Since Hirving “Chucky” Lozano went down in the Group A opener against Trinidad and Tobago with a scary head injury, Mexico has struggled mightily to create and finish chances against every opponent it has faced at the Gold Cup.

Mexico’s four goals account for the lowest total among all of the eight teams who punched their ticket for the quarterfinals, and, after a strong start in his friendly debut against Nigeria, striker Rogelio Funes Mori has cooled off significantly. As expected, Mexico has dominated possession in its matchups so far, but with one exception, has struggled to break through against stingy defensive setups in every game. Against Trinidad and Tobago, El Tri held the ball for an impressive 83% of the game, and managed 30 shots on goal in the process, only to walk away with a 0-0 draw.

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Luckily for the defending champs, they’ll be facing off against a Honduras side that has given up the most amount of goals among all tournament survivors. If Mexico can score early in the quarterfinal match, the pressure will be significantly lessened as the game goes on, allowing speedy wingers Jesus “Tecatito” Corona and Orbelin Pineda to stage counterattacks when Honduras is inevitably forced to push forward after doing down.

Unlike their next opponents, Honduras hasn’t lacked firepower up front. In their first two games, Los Catrachos scored seven goals against Grenada and Panama to lock down passage to the next round. However, they were thoroughly outmatched against Asian Cup champs Qatar in the Group D coda and saw severa star players — including playmaker Alberth “La Pantera” Elis, offensive engine Romell Quioto, and defensive leader Maynor Figueroa — suffer injuries.

The biggest question facing Honduras moving forward will not just be whether Quioto and Figueroa are good to go against Mexico (Elis is out with a broken toe), but how effective they will be and whether anyone else can pick up the slack if those two miss action.

How it will play out: There are essentially two scenarios knowing what each team will set out to do. Mexico, in its role as aggressor, will likely continue using the 4-3-3 formation that has yielded mixed results without Lozano as the anchor. Honduras will hang back with eight or nine players in defense regardless of their formation in an attempt to force mistakes, yielding counterattacks against a mostly untested Mexican back line.

As mentioned above, it behooves El Tri to get an early goal so it can continue to dictate the game’s tempo and mount counterattacks of its own after Honduras is forced to go forward in an elimination game. If Honduras can withstand Mexico’s attacks or even find a goal of its own, it will put every last bit of pressure on their opponents as time marches on.

As with every CONCACAF match, Mexico can’t afford to lose, especially after losing the Nations League final to the USMNT in June. That being said, El Tri is lucky to play a banged up Honduras side who failed to impress in the group stage. — Eric Gomez

Qatar vs. El Salvador

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET (Glendale, Ariz.)

Form guide: New manager Hugo Perez has El Salvador on the rise, as La Selecta have only lost two times in nine matches under the former U.S. international and have qualified for the final stage of World Cup qualifying for the first time in three cycles. Led by ex-Fiorentina man Josh Perez (son of Hugo) and the lively Jairo Henriquez, El Salvador were an exciting watch in group play, generating tons of chances in 2-0 wins over Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago.

Backed by impressive crowd support at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, El Salvador’s showing in a narrow 1-0 defeat against Mexico proved they will not be daunted by any opponent at this tournament.

Invitees Qatar arrived as the mystery outfit at the Gold Cup but have quickly shown the defending Asian Cup champions are not here to merely make up the numbers. Felix Sanchez’s men surprisingly pipped Honduras to top spot in Group D thanks to a 2-0 win on Tuesday night and are the top scorers in the entire tournament thus far with nine goals.

Xavi’s Al Sadd disciple Akram Afif leads the tournament in chances created with 16, and alongside Almoez Ali and Abdelaziz Hatem, is one of three Qatari players with two goals.

How it will play out: While El Salvador’s frantic style won over neutrals during group play, playing that way against high-scoring Qatar might be a dangerous game. La Selecta rode their luck a bit and the brilliant Mario Gonzalez in goal (five saves) against Mexico, so Hugo Perez would be well-served to try and tighten up his team at the back a bit to avoid being punished in the quarterfinals.

For Qatar, game management will be key, as future World Cup hosts must avoid conceding sloppy goals and surrendering leads like they did on three occasions in their opener against Panama. Qatar can get carried away attacking, and in a knockout game, they can ill afford to switch off at the back, especially on set pieces.

While not the most high-profile of the quarterfinal matchups, this clash promises to be among the most entertaining, as both teams are drilled to attack the goal, meaning this should be a lively affair. Qatar will have a slight edge due to their wealth of attacking talent and clinical finishing in front of goal in what should be a pulsating, back-and-forth match. — Gus Elvin

Costa Rica vs. Canada

When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m. ET (Arlington, Texas)

Form guide: Canada went into its final group stage match against the United States on an eight-game winning streak and while it ended in a 1-0 defeat, Canada outplayed the Americans for long stretches and is a dangerous side in the knockout rounds. Even without the two headliners — Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David — Canada cruised by Haiti and Martinique with a pair of 4-1 wins and would have owned the tiebreaker had it drawn with the USMNT.

After coming into the tournament on a poor run of form, Costa Rica reestablished itself as a threat to advance deep into the tournament with three group-stage wins. Bryan Ruiz‘s goal secured a pivotal 1-0 win against Jamaica to top the group, while Joel Campbell contributed to Los Ticos’ win against Guadeloupe.

How it will play out: It wasn’t a problem in the first two matches against overmatched opposition, but Canada was unable to create many dangerous chances against the United States. Costa Rica haven’t been as stout defensive as the United States, but should provide a similar challenge to break down — especially considering both Ayo Akinola and Cyle Larin will be unavailable due to injuries. Without any of their best attacking options available, Canada could be forced to sit deeper than it would have otherwise and hope to strike on the counter.

Costa Rica’s experienced squad was a bit of an unknown coming into the tournament because Luis Fernando Suarez’s appointment came just weeks before it began. That also makes it tough to forecast what possible wrinkles could be unveiled at this stage of the competition. Because it’s such a veteran group, though, it’s fair to assume Costa Rica will be comfortable in the high-stakes match against more of an upstart opponent. — Kyle Bonagura

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