Gold Cup 2021 at the semifinals and beyond
This year’s Gold Cup has been unique. The pandemic has forced changes to all sporting events from our domestic leagues in the USA to international competitions like the Euro 2020, Copa America 2021, and Tokyo Olympics 2020 (21). But in CONCACAF’s case, the tourney took another set of bizarre detours to yet reach mostly the expected semifinals pairing.
The USA, after dramatically yet convincingly winning the CONCACAF Nations League chose not to bring their A team to the region’s premier competition. Star Hirving Lozano was injured in his first match on an already depleted Mexican team. Canada’s Alphonso Davies, perhaps their best player, was injured at practice and ruled out of the tourney. The guest team, Qatar, has been the best playing team, or at least the most consistently entertaining. Unheralded Suriname played through some tough spells of quality soccer. And yet, after the dust settled, the usual suspects plus Qatar are in the semifinals.
In one semifinal Qatar will play the USA and despite home-field advantage, it is the reigning Asian Champions who look the better side. In the second semifinal, Mexico and Canada will measure up with the latter playing the better football. No guest nation has yet won another FIFA Confederation’s top tourney, but if anyone looks the part, Qatar does. Imagine them heading home to host the 2022 World Cup holding the AFC and CONCACAF titles!
Think of a country with a population comparable to Chicago’s winning the 2019 AFC championship by beating South Korea and Japan and then having to meet the USA and either Mexico or Canada to hoist the Gold Cup trophy. What type of mental strength does it take to always compete as the David to everyone’s Goliath?
It is ironic that of the four remaining national teams it is the chosen national incarnation of the recent Nations League winner who presents as the weakest contender. At this writing, it would seem a Canada-Qatar is the most likely final. In that final, based on their performances so far, the skill and psychological advantages go to Qatar, and the physical strength and quasi-home-field advantage go to Canada, while the athleticism seems evenly distributed between the two.
In a tourney with some bouts of uneven and at times downright poor officiating, but mercifully not with the numbers of own goals that seemed to plague the Euro or the consistent cynical roughness that can characterize a Copa America, the 2021 Gold Cup could still hinge on a poor call or a lucky bounce. But, if coach John Herdman can find the right substitutes for his team’s suspended and injured troops, the time seems ripe for Canada to put all their remaining pieces together and earn their second championship. Similarly, if Qatar make it to the final and play as they have so far, they could make history.
So how could the USA and or Mexico advance? Anything can happen in sports, and yes luck plays a huge role in life and by extension sports. But neither Nations League finalist seems up to the task of winning a tourney others have taken more seriously.