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Ali Gerba, Atiba Hutchinson and Julian De Guzman will have to be at their best if Canada is to qualify for the quarter-finals at this month's CONCACAF Gold Cup. ((Stephan Savoia/Associated Press))

Bragging rights in soccer's CONCACAF region will be on the line when the Gold Cup kicks off Friday in Carson, Calif.

From July 3 to 26 in 13 cities across the United States, 12 countries from all over North and Central America and the Caribbean will compete in CONCACAF's most prestigious tournament.

2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup

The tenth edition of the Gold Cup will be contested in the United States from July 3 to 26.

The tournament will be staged in 13 cities, with the semifinals to be held at Chicago's Soldier Field, and the final slated for Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

Twelve nations from CONCACAF, the soccer confederation that covers North and Central America, and the Caribbean, are divided into three round-robin groups.

The top two teams in each group, and the two best third-place teams overall, advance to the quarter-finals.

Canada will compete in Group A and plays Jamaica (July 3 in Carson, Calif.), El Salvador (July 7 in Columbus, Ohio) and Costa Rica (July 10 in Miami, Fla.) in the first round.

Group B features the defending champion U.S., Honduras, Haiti and Grenada, with games in Seattle, Wash., and Foxborough, Mass.

Group C is comprised of Mexico, Panama, Guadeloupe and Panama, with games in Oakland, Calif., Houston, Texas, and Glendale, Ariz.

No less than five teams (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S.) that are still alive in the World Cup qualifiers will compete at the Gold Cup, with the Americans vying to win their third Gold Cup championship in a row and a record fifth title overall.

Already eliminated from World Cup contention, Canada will also be present at the Gold Cup, playing for pride after reaching the semifinals of the 2007 Gold Cup and looking to win its first championship since 2000.

The Gold Cup also has serious ramifications on Major League Soccer as many players, including American midfielder Sam Cronin of Toronto FC, have been called upon to represent their countries, making them unavailable for their MLS clubs.

CBCSports.ca offers this breakdown of the 12 teams and major players to watch on the road to the Gold Cup final on July 26 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

GROUP A: Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Jamaica

Currently undefeated and sitting in first place in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, Costa Rica enters the Gold Cup as one of the tournament favourites. Coach Rodrigo Kenton is bringing a full-strength side to the U.S., which means Los Ticos will benefit from the lethal 1-2 scoring punch provided by strikers Alvaro Saborio and Andy Furtado. Veteran defenders Harold Wallace and Leonardo Gonzalez will anchor a solid and sturdy back line, while youngster Celso Borges provides creativity in midfield. As one of the best teams in CONCACAF, Costa Rica should easily win this group, and looks like a sure bet to advance to the semifinals.

The Canadians will have their work cut out for them in the Group of Death, especially with influential playmaker Dwayne De Rosario (who opted not to play in the tournament) and forward Rob Friend (injured) not making the trip. There are also problems at the back due to the absence of starting goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld, and defenders Adrian Serioux and Daniel Imhof. But all is not lost for interim coach Stephen Hart, who guided Canada to the semifinals two years ago, as star midfielders Atiba Hutchinson and Julian de Guzman, and forward Ali Gerba are more than capable of stepping up and providing goals and creativity. It'll be interesting to see how much playing time Hart gives to youngsters such as forward Simeon Jackson (22) and defender Dejan Jakovic (23). Will Hart use this tournament as an opportunity to blood some of his young talent and build for the future? Or will he rely on the veterans to restore some pride after the team's failed bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup? Time will tell, but either way, Canada will be hard pressed to make it to the quarter-finals.

El Salvador is also involved in the final round of World Cup qualifiers and like Costa Rica is bringing its 'A team' to the Gold Cup. El Salvador will be looking to build some momentum and confidence, as they currently sit in fifth place and are in real danger of failing to make it to next year's World Cup. Midfield creator Eliseo Quantanilla and striker Rudis Corrales are exciting players to watch, and they will give opposing defenders all they can handle. Despite their struggles in World Cup qualifying, El Salvador shouldn't be taken lightly and will more than likely be battling it out with Canada for second place in the group.

Jamaica is an experienced team that, even though they've already been eliminated from World Cup contention, could pose problems for the three other teams in this group. With Ricardo Gardner and Ian Goodison anchoring the defence and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts between the posts, opposing teams will find it difficult to score against the Reggae Boyz.

Prediction: 1) Costa Rica 2) El Salvador 3) Canada ** 4) Jamaica

** denotes: qualifies for quarter-finals as third-place wild card

GROUP B: Haiti, Honduras, Grenada, United States

History of the Gold Cup

The Gold Cup is the top soccer competition of the CONCACAF, the soccer confederation that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. The first Gold Cup was held in 1991 — previously the tournament was known simply as the CONCACAF Championship.

The first CONCACAF Championship was held in 1963. From 1973 to 1989, the CONCACAF Championship doubled as the final World Cup qualifying tournament, with the winner gaining a World Cup berth.

The tournament was rechristened as the Gold Cup in 1991. Since then, only three nations have won the competition: Mexico (four times), the United States (four times) and Canada (once).

Previous Gold Cup winners

  • 2007  - United States
  • 2005 - United States
  • 2003 - Mexico
  • 2002 - United States
  • 2000 - Canada
  • 1998 - Mexico
  • 1996 - Mexico
  • 1993 - Mexico
  • 1991 - United States CONCACAF Championship becomes Gold Cup in 1991
  • 1989 - Costa Rica
  • 1985 - Canada
  • 1981 - Honduras
  • 1977 - Mexico
  • 1973 - Haiti
  • 1971 - Mexico
  • 1969 - Costa Rica
  • 1967 - Guatemala
  • 1965 - Mexico
  • 1963 - Costa Rica

This is not the same American 23-man team that reached the finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup last month. Coach Bob Bradley has named a mostly MLS-based roster, with only a handful of players that competed in South Africa having been retained. Interestingly, CONCACAF has given the U.S permission to bring an extra seven players because of the rigours they endured in playing in the Confederations Cup. Bradley can call upon players the calibre of Chad Marshall, Kenny Cooper, and Robbie Rogers, not to mention promising Toronto FC rookie Sam Cronin, who could get his first taste of international action. With home-field advantage, a deep roster of talent and momentum on their side, not to mention history (the U.S. has won the previous two Gold Cups), this is the Americans' tournament to lose.

Like the U.S., Honduras has left many of their best players at home, most notably midfielders Wilson Palacios of Tottenham and Toronto FC's Amado Guevara, and star forwards David Suazo (out injured) and Carlos Pavon. That being said, the Hondurans have a number of quality players making the trip, including forward Walter Martinez, while the others will be looking to impress coach Reynaldo Rueda, giving him something to think about when he's putting together his roster for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Barring a major catastrophe, Honduras will easily finish second in this group and move on to the quarter-finals.

This will be Grenada's first ever Gold Cup appearance, and although they're a useful side, they've been drawn into a very difficult group where passage through to the quarter-finals won't be easily achieved. Not even the presence of the outstanding Shalrie Joseph, one of the best midfielders in MLS, and Blackburn Rovers' striker Jason Roberts will help them against the mighty Americans and Hondurans.

As for Haiti, this will be a case of the lambs being led to slaughter. The Haitians are only here as a replacement for Cuba, after they withdrew from the tournament because they felt they couldn't field a competitive squad. The Haitian team lacks quality players and depth (they have to rely on 37-year-old captain Pierre Bruny to lead the defence) and they will struggle to earn a point in this group.

Prediction: 1) United States 2) Honduras 3) Haiti 4) Grenada

GROUP C: Guadeloupe, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama

Mexico isn't bringing its 'A team' to this tournament, but Los Tricolores   boast solid depth and still have to be considered one of the favourites. This is a team that perfectly mixes youth (Tottenham playmaker Giovanni Dos Santos and Arsenal striker Carlos Vela) with experience (Deportivo La Coruna forward Omar Bravo and defensive midfield linchpin Gerardo Torrado). Mexico has won this tournament four times, but has had to sit back and watch the U.S. win the last two, so expect captain Torrado and his teammates to make a statement by winning the group.

It's hard to predict which Panama side will show up at the Gold Cup — the one that bowed out in the preliminary round of 2010 World Cup qualifiers or the one that defeated Costa Rica in the final of the Central American championship back in February? With no World Cup qualifying games on the horizon, this is Panama's chance to redeem itself, so look for the Central American champions to take it and claim a spot in the quarter-finals, with forwards Luis Tejada and Blas Perez leading the charge.

Discount Guadeloupe at your own peril — the tiny island located in the eastern Caribbean Sea made its Gold Cup debut in 2007 and stunned the field by reaching the semifinals, defeating Canada and Honduras along the way. The majority of the squad play professionally in France, including Franck Grandel who was voted goalkeeper of the tournament two years ago. Forward Mickael Antoine-Curier is a dangerous goal-scorer who will spearhead the attack.

Nicaragua will be making its Gold Cup debut and will be in for a rude awakening. The team is comprised of young players with little international experience, and will do well to even win a game at this competition.

Prediction: 1) Mexico 2) Panama 3) Guadeloupe **4) Nicaragua

** denotes: qualifies for quarter-finals as third-place wild card