Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?
The U.S. lifted the last Gold Cup in 2017 and it's begun defending its crown in 2019 on home soil. With several of Mexico's biggest names not taking part and the U.S. interest in the competition largely centering on making amends for missing out on last summer's World Cup, it seems as if the Gold Cup perhaps doesn't carry the cache you might expect from a continental competition.
ESPN FC asked Jeff Carlisle and Tom Marshall if the U.S. and Mexico feel like the Gold Cup is losing some luster for them.
Gold Cup as important as ever for U.S.
The question of whether the Gold Cup is losing its luster has several components. There's what it means to the participating countries outside the U.S., and what it means to the U.S. itself. For a team like Mexico, it does seem that some buzz around the tournament has been lost given that so many of its stars opted not to participate. There's also the absence of a bigger prize to drive prestige and interest: what used to be a ticket to the now-defunct Confederations Cup is now simply a means to an end.
This perceived dip isn't new, with the relative importance of the Gold Cup tending to fluctuate over time. In the past, there have been instances where countries opted to send a "B team" and tried to build depth and experience among a wider group of players. You saw it with some of the region's heavyweights like Mexico and the U.S., as well as other countries who may have been in rebuilding mode.
In some ways, it's to be expected when a continental tournament is held every two years. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it can foster a level of disinterest.
That said, from the U.S. perspective, this Gold Cup is as important as it's ever been. When asked on the eve of the tournament if its shine had lessened, U.S. defender Tim Ream -- who is taking part in his third Gold Cup -- was fairly clear. "Not for us. We can't control who misses for Mexico and who misses for us and who's on the squad and who's not on the squad. We're here to advance through the tournament and ultimately win the tournament.
"Whether media, fans, the footballing world see it as a lack of luster, that's kind of everyone's own opinion and everyone is entitled to that opinion. But as a group here, we're putting the most emphasis on winning this tournament."
Part of what's driving the U.S. team's view is circumstantial. The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup means there is a need for the U.S. men's national team program to rehabilitate itself, a process that goes beyond blooding in new players. After decades of steady progress, the U.S. men's program has suffered a significant dip. The Gold Cup is the first competitive tournament in which that slide can be arrested.
"We feel like the Gold Cup is kind of a small step towards retribution and putting the program back to where it should and can be," said Ream. "I think everybody, even guys who weren't involved in the last cycle, feels a responsibility to do that. I think again, it started in January when Gregg [Berhalter] took over and it's going to continue through the Gold Cup and through the CONCACAF Nations League in the fall.
"We feel a responsibility to kind of make retribution for ourselves, the program and the fans."
Even in the best of times, the U.S. has found itself with something to prove. With a new generation of players coming through, there is a sense of trying to play with a pride and purpose that it is CONCACAF's top international side.
"The way I look at it, whenever you have the opportunity to put on the U.S. jersey, it's one of the most important games of your career at the time," said defender Matt Miazga. "The next game is the most important of your career. That's the way you've got to look at it. And obviously whenever you have the chance to represent your country, what greater honor is there? For me, and I'm sure for all of our guys, it's an honor and we're going to give it our all to represent the country and obviously establish ourselves for the next opportunity, the next game."
Beyond making amends for the World Cup failure and the pride of playing for your country, there is also the element of silverware, the chance to again prove the country deserves its mantle as the region's best.
"I think any time you play for a trophy, the games are competitive, and you see that you have teams that could be classified as smaller soccer countries that are playing good games and giving teams a difficult time," Berhalter said following the Americans' 6-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago. "For all of these teams, it's an opportunity for growth, it's an opportunity to progress. When you're playing for something on the line, there's a different urgency. I think that's always going to be important."
So while the Gold Cup may have lost a bit of shine, the U.S. at least is doing its bit, cruising through the group stage undefeated, to make sure some relevance is attached. -- Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle)
Every two years is too much for Mexico
Gerardo "Tata" Martino has been asked about the Copa America in every news conference since he arrived in the United States for the Gold Cup. Perhaps it's natural given that he's reached the final of the Copa America three times in his career, once with Paraguay and twice with Argentina, but it's also put into stark contrast the reality of Mexico's summer compared to playing the South American tournament: El Tri has been involved in every Copa America since 1993 but missed out this year due to scheduling issues with the Gold Cup.
Martino has stressed he wants Mexico to return to the South American tournament, but it won't be involved in next year's Copa America, either, with Qatar and Australia confirmed as the invited guests. And so, instead of participating in the Copa America as one of the traditionally invited teams to fill out the bracket, it was drawn into a Gold Cup group stage against Canada (ranked 78th by FIFA), Cuba (174) and Martinique, which isn't a FIFA member and therefore doesn't have a ranking.
"I always believe that taking on South American teams is very useful," said Martino last week. "It was against Chile and Paraguay and it will be against Venezuela and Ecuador, but then comes the reality, which is our area, with the teams we'll face in the Gold Cup, which is the most important competition."
Mexico's squad for the Gold Cup is severely depleted and there is a feeling that had this been a World Cup year, or even if Mexico was involved in the Copa America, players would have rallied to be involved. The likes of Hector Herrera and Javier Hernandez would've sacrificed personal situations and made the trip. Hirving Lozano would have been given the maximum amount of time to recover from injury -- even though Martino said playing would risk further injury -- and perhaps more could've been done to mend relations with the estranged Porto winger Jesus "Tecatito" Corona. Carlos Vela, however, is a separate case.
"Lamentably, the situation today with the national team and the Gold Cup isn't the best and they give priority to other things aside from these tournaments," was former captain Rafa Marquez's take. Former goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who represented El Tri from 1991 to 2004, was also adamant that the absences have something to do with ulterior motives.
"It's lamentable and sad, something has happened," said Campos. "It's very difficult to know the reason. I think a call-up to represent Mexico's colors should be big. Something must've happened, we don't know whose fault it is but it's sad because in my time we went to the national team with a lot of affection."
- Marshall: How Raul Jimenez became the most important player in depleted Mexico squad
- Gold Cup travel: How teams handle stress getting around U.S.
Hernandez got into a Twitter feud with former forward Luis Alberto "Zague" Alves over his Gold Cup no-show, stressing that it was mutually agreed upon with Martino. But there's also been a reminder of the danger of speculation, with the news Miguel Layun was kept out of the Gold Cup because he underwent an operation on a cancerous tumor. Previously, the official word was that he had a kidney infection.
"It's not good to generalize. We'll think and analyze each name and handle it fairly, case by case," said Martino. "I can talk about Layun, which is clearly a health situation and it wouldn't be fair to put all of them in the same basket."
Inside the camp, the page has long been turned on those missing out and there's been a constant sense of acceptance and excitement about this squad. This group of players -- including youngsters like Carlos Rodriguez, Roberto Alvarado, Jorge Sanchez, Edson Alvarez and the mercurial Rodolfo Pizarro -- have taken the opportunity to show their stuff in the tournament, with only five of the 23 names in Mexico's squad having previously won the competition.
"I'm really excited about playing in the Gold Cup, it's revenge [after missing the World Cup]," said Nestor Araujo after Mexico's 3-1 win over Venezuela. "Putting on this shirt is always a source of pride." The manner in which Mexico dispatched Cuba 7-0 in its opening game, with Uriel Antuna scoring an impressive hat trick, only served to reinforce the pride and excitement of the players who did show up for their country this summer. Further victories over Canada and Martinique meant they ended group play with a perfect record and now face a quarterfinal against Costa Rica in Houston on June 29.
Despite that, the feeling around the Mexico national team is that the Gold Cup should be played every four years, as Raul Jimenez stated in an interview with ESPN, especially now that there is no Confederations Cup place at stake.
For fans, though, there is something of a divide. Mexico's faithful in the United States flock to see their team seemingly wherever it plays and there's an anticipation about the new generation and getting to see El Tri this summer.
Mexico drives the tournament commercially, the only team that regularly attracts crowds of over 50,000. In the group stage alone, Mexico drew 177,684 fans (an average of 59,228 per game) and even the lowest (52,874) is higher than any of the Brazil games so far at the Copa America on home soil. And all that's in spite of the so-called stars not being present.
"I think there was initially some disappointment because guys like 'Chicharito' won't be here, but as we've seen the team come together there's genuine excitement for guys like Pizarro to take a leadership role and the eight under-23 players in the squad as we build towards the World Cup," said Sergio Tristan, founder of U.S.-based fan group Pancho Villa's Army.
"I don't see a decrease [in interest]. If anything I think people are more excited than previously just because of the new names, the new stars that we've been desperate to take a more central role ... we want to win it, because you never want to lose to the U.S."
That feeling isn't in line with Mexico-based Milo Assad, a co-founder of the Corazon Azteca fan group that made its presence felt in Russia last summer.
"From my point of view, I think [the Gold Cup has lost relevance]," said Assad. "From my perspective, there are too many games in the United States each year, between the friendlies and the official Gold Cup ones."
He continued: "On one side, people are a little tired of the same mid-to-lower-quality opponents; a tournament that now without the Confederations Cup doesn't give you anything; the frequency of the tournament every two years; it's got excessive." -- Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup)