On Wednesday night (22:30 EST, Sportsnet World/360), Canada begins its chase for pinnacles last achieved in 2000; winning the Gold Cup.
California will be the setting for Canada’s first test, a match against El Salvador (known colloquially as Los Cuscatleco). The match presents Canada with a golden opportunity to kick off the tournament on the right foot and snag all three points on offer.
El Salvador bring a roster to this Gold Cup that lacks any standout names. Midfielder Arturo Alvarez plies his trade at Hungarian outfit Videoton (not to be confused with the cable operator in Québec), a club that were crowned champions in the most recent Nemzeti Bajnokság I (that’s the Hungarian first division for those not in the know). Los Cuscatleco are captained by New York Cosmos midfielder Andrés Flores, whose most recent goal came against the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL on May 16th. El Salvador’s goals leader within this Gold Cup squad is Rafael Burgos with six. The 27-year old plays in the Norwegian first division with Fredrikstad FK. For what it’s worth, I have some Salvadoran friends who claim that Orlando City’s Darwin Cerén is a player to keep an eye on.
The vast majority of players on this squad play in the Salvadoran first division. That may not be a bad thing: we’ve seen in the past smaller nations made up of domestic league players cause trouble due to their familiarity with one another. The Jamaican team that spearheaded World Cup qualifying for France ‘98 comes to mind, for example. All in all, this is not a Salvadoran squad that should cause too many headaches for Canada.
For the first time in two decades, Les Rouges have an attack that will cause defences to shudder. The triumvirate of Cyle Larin, Tesho Akindele and Tosaint Ricketts are the most potent threat Canada has put on the field since the days of Alex Bunbury and Paul Peschisolido (with a hat-tip to the lone striking days of Tomasz Radzinski). With Jonathan Osorio and Russell Teibert feeding these forwards, and that midfield anchored by Samuel Piette, Canada should dominate possession and attempts at goal.
Where Canada has question marks is in defence. David Edgar is a lock at one of the centre back spots. Who fills out the other three positions? One of my favourites is Karl Ouimette, and I believe he fits in best as a centre back but as we saw against Dominica, Ouimette can boss a match from left back. The reason I believe Ouimette slots into central defence is because of a backlog of players eligible at left back. Marcel de Jong was once the clear choice here, but Ashtone Morgan has been pushing him with his stellar displays for Toronto FC. Energie Cottbus defender Nik Ledgerwood is probably going to start at right back, but could cede his place to one of the aforementioned players playing out of position if the grind of three matches in nine days becomes too much. That goes for all of them. Perhaps Ouimette’s versatility will prove to be a great boon.
At keeper, head coach Benito Floro has not tipped his hand about who to start. Toronto FC’s Quillan Roberts is part of the squad to gain experience from the bench. That leaves Kenny Stamatopoulos and Lars Hirschfeld to fight for the gloves. When Milan Borjan was sent off and suspended during the Dominica matches, Stamatopoulos was Floro’s choice. That being said, Dominica never threatened his 18-yard box, and so wasn’t given the opportunity to show what he can do. Given the tight schedule, I’d expect to see Stamatopoulos start the first match and Hirschfeld to start the Jamaica match, handing the rest of the tournament to whichever keeper has performed best.
Benito Del Floro has regularly tested this squad over the past few years with some quality opponents. The added wrinkle in this match against El Salvador is that it kicks off a string of competitive matches against quality opponents in which the result matters, the first time this has taken place since “that night” in San Pedro Sula. It will be interesting to see how this young squad responds, and how deep Canada can go in this Gold Cup. A victory would allow supporters of the Canadian squad to breathe a little easier and feel that their optimism isn’t misplaced. A defeat and, well, the same old red flags make their way up the pole.