Below the Surface
The Gold Cup had familiar finalists, but things are changing in Concacaf
“Before we let you go...”
The L screeched overhead at Clark/Lake station. Before becoming the type of reporter people actually wanted to talk to on their sports radio shows or podcasts, I always figured reporters were sitting in some studio or at least a quiet room. The reality is I generally jump on for a few minutes at a train station, a coffee shop or while hoping the flight delay announcements aren’t overwhelming whatever I’m saying about the Bermuda player a second-division club really must take a look at.
It was the day after the Gold Cup final and the noise of public transit was making me wince. But this was it. This last question and I was onto the Blue Line, headed for the Midwest’s best selection of mezcal and, later, for the plane that would take me to the house that contains my bed – neither of which I’d seen enough of since the tournament started.
All I had to do was toss out a quick answer, say I enjoyed the chat (I genuinely do most of the time) and my tournament would come to an end. Vacation mode engaged.
“...do you have a favourite moment from the tournament?”
I paused and smiled. Todos Santos wasn’t closing any time soon and my flight out of O’Hare was probably delayed anyway.
“You know, I do.”
The thing about the Gold Cup is that sometimes it kind of sucks. I say that as someone who seeks to give coverage to the most obscure of the obscure but also who makes his living covering the money-making behemoth that is the Mexico national team with cameos on the US soccer beat. I should love the Gold Cup, and I do. Heading into the fifth tournament I’ve worked at as a journalist, though, my levels of enthusiasm were not through the roof.
That’s what happens when a tournament is drawn up to maximise profit. First of all, there are too many Gold Cups. This was the fifth in eight years – compare that to two Asian Cups or Euros in that time. The Gold Cup is always in the United States, so as not to lose out on the revenue generated by fans spending in dollars. The various national teams are among the strongest cultural touchstones for the enormous immigrant communities here, especially if you can get, say, a Mexico game in Phoenix, Honduras in Houston or El Salvador in Los Angeles.
Concacaf did guarantee those teams would be in those places. The Gold Cup fixtures come out at a ‘reveal’ event rather than a draw – all the better to make sure the most lucrative possible final featuring the United States and Mexico doesn’t take place until the actual final.
There were elements that had me juiced up about the tournament this time around, however. First off, it was expanded to 16 teams, but those teams had to secure their places by finishing in the top portion of Nations League qualification. The tournament also saw matches played in Central America and the Caribbean for the first time – far too late for two of the three subregions to be hosting their first matches in the current format of the competition that started in 1991, but better late than never.
My bosses are not enthused. They rudely decline to send me to Jamaica, instead opting for a Mexico group game plus anything I can drive to. That means I start the tournament watching from home. The Gold Cup actually isn’t the worst tournament to cover from home. The size of the United States, combined with the rigamarole of airport security, means you can feel like you’ve only seen stadiums, press workrooms and airports if you’re trying to make it to too many games in a short period of time.
I choose Mexico’s second group game, meaning not only do I get to see El Tri v Canada but I also pick up Cuba v Martinique. All Gold Cup games are double-headers, with Concacaf correctly figuring no one would attend a one-off game between two of the minnows.
The Rose Bowl is slow to fill for Canada’s 4-0 thrashing of Martinique but looks packed for Mexico’s 7-0 shellacking of Cuba. Group B at least sees Bermuda pull out in front of Haiti but eventually the favourites pull through. Group C also plays to type, although a decent game between Jamaica and Honduras lifts the spirits.
Still, I can’t help but wonder, is this tournament going to be a bit shit this time around?
I talk with Guyana’s UK-based coach Michael Johnson before his team’s debut against the United States and start to get the Gold Cup fever once again. Johnson’s men fall 4-0 to the US but I’m back in. Plus, just hours after the final whistle blows, I’m awake and heading to Denver for what I hope will be Mexico’s most competitive group games.
I’m in downtown Denver, having arrived on the first flight. There are four news conferences. They include the Martinique manager Mario Bocaly speaking Spanish for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, Cuba’s coach Raúl Mederos talking about his captain’s defection, the Canada boss John Herdman once again mentioning how his team was happy for the Toronto Raptors’ NBA success – this time he invites Drake to support his team – and the Mexico manager Gerardo Martino. A Mexico news conference is always an experience, and in this one Martino tries to underline how seriously his team is taking Canada.
They need to because Herdman’s team are clearly second-best in the group.
Ultimately, though, they’re just that – second best. It’s a test, but one Mexico pass, 3-1. I’ve chosen the right game to go to. The tournament favourites are starting to get in rhythm, and so am I. What I don’t know is that it won’t even be close to the best game I cover that week.
I fly home to Dallas for what I’m expecting to be a pretty drab double- header. Haiti roll past Nicaragua but then Costa Rica don’t roll past Bermuda at all. Sure, the Ticos win 2-1, but Bermuda put up quite a fight. The vibe in the post-match conferences couldn’t be more different. The Bermuda coach Kyle Lightbourne sends a warning to Nations League foes Mexico and Panama that his team will make life hell for them in the tropical paradise. Gustavo Matosas, Costa Rica’s manager, takes five questions, pretends he can’t hear several of them and leaves after several icy replies.
The next day, I drive down the I-45 and arrive at a sold-out BBVA Stadium just in time to take care of my pre-match video and get inside for kick-off of Jamaica v El Salvador, which I wrongly assume will lead my coverage. Salvadoran and Honduran fans mingle, historical enemies on and off the field but today brothers in blue.
They all look on in shock as Curaçao score their first-ever Gold Cup goal in the first match against Honduras. The goalkeeper Eloy Room puts in a heroic effort – although no one can agree just how many saves he’s made. Concacaf’s figure is different from the broadcaster’s tally and it’s 2019 so nobody in the press box was bothering to keep track. We all can agree it’s more than a dozen. What is not in question is that Honduras are eliminated.
Their Uruguayan coach Fabián Coito doesn’t seem to quite display the right level of contrition for such a failure. Most of the press corps depart after that, leaving myself and one or two others some quality time with Curaçao’s manager Remko Bicentini. The beaming Bicentini’s English has improved since 2017, a tournament in which his side played out from the back, looked to attack and established their identity as they lost all three group games 2-0. Too often, teams have shown that type of spark in a tournament and then fallen off the map. This time, the project was successful.
The coach still uses a translator to understand the questions but responds in English about how proud he is of his team to not only get their first Gold Cup goal but to secure a victory.
Do I look more like a Canadian spy if I stay in my car and glance up the training field through my rear-view mirror or if I just get out and stand by the fence?
It’s too hot to sit in the car for long, so I finally just wait at the gate. The Haiti players, fresh off a win over Costa Rica to win the group and move into a quarter-final against Canada, come off the field speaking a mix of Creole, French and English. I grab some of the US-born guys, whom I’ve interviewed before. The centre-back Andre-Jean Baptiste tells me there are even more languages in the mix than just those three. Derrick Etienne Jr explains how the doubts that a team from a country like Haiti could do anything in the tournament fuels them.
We hear from Marc Collat and Herdman (no Raptors questions this time) and also Matosas and Martino (the quarter- finals are also double-headers and until the last edition the semi-finals were as well). Matosas has dropped the angry- guy act and is back to the jovial witty guy he was when he coached León to back-to-back titles in the Mexican league. Like Bicentini, he’s trying to get his team to play an attacking style and even with Mexico the favourites they’ll commit numbers forward throughout the match.
The ball gets rolling in Houston and Canada pop two in. Haiti have fallen behind in two of their three group games, but they seem lost before a miscommunication in the Canadian defence between the right-back Marcus Godinho and the goalkeeper Milan Borjan allows Duckens Nazon to tap in and half the gap. Then in the 70th minute, a wild tackle in the box gives Haiti a chance to level it from the spot – a chance which Hervé Bazile takes.
Six minutes later, it happens. My favourite moment of the tournament. Everyone knows you can’t cheer in the press box, but I suggest that if you’re not Canadian and didn’t have some sort of reaction to Wilde-Donald Guerrier’s 76th-minute winner, you’re in the wrong profession. It starts near Haiti’s own box, with Steeven Saba muscling a Canadian player off the ball and then launching a gorgeous switch to Nazon. Nazon drives forward and, realising the wing is cut off, drifts toward the centre. He hits an impossible pass for Guerrier, whose first touch is poor. It looks like the chance has gone, but he stays with it and pops the ball back in the air before it hits the ground. This flummoxes Borjan and Guerrier hits once more on the volley to finish the move.
Three second-half goals to put Haiti – Haiti! – in the semi-finals of a continental championship.
My editors hadn’t been all that concerned about the Haiti feature pre- match and we were only going to do a line from the first game if something remarkable happened. It did, so I went down to the mixed zone and spoke with the same guys I’d interviewed the day before. As Costa Rica went toe-to-toe with Mexico in the first half of the second game, I was writing what would be my most-read feature of the tournament – how Baptiste stood and gave a rousing half-time speech, how the doubt of others once again had fuelled them and how they took advantage of the chances Canada gave them (Herdman was sunk after the third goal, trying to get the rising star Alphonso Davies into a more attacking position and bringing on a defender to let the Bayern Munich man push up. It wasn’t enough).
I didn’t need to worry as much about timing as I thought. El Tri and Los Ticos were headed for extra time with a questionable penalty helping Costa Rica match a goal by Raúl Jiménez and send things to a penalty shoot-out. Mexico’s star goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa dove to deny Keysher Fuller and make sure Jiménez’s opening miss didn’t come back to haunt the favourites. We had a Mexico v Haiti semi-final.
On the other side of the bracket, the United States had been marching on but the day after the hysterics in Houston, they lost the possession battle against a persistent Curaçao in an unconvincing 1-0 victory. The islanders had progressed to the knockout stage thanks to already- eliminated Honduras thrashing El Salvador when a point would’ve done for La Selecta. Jamaica and Panama played a gritty quarter-final that had me predicting the Reggae Boyz, who snuck home 1-0, would knock out USA in the last four.
I was no longer the only reporter who wanted to talk to the Haitians. Their style of play? Their mental fortitude? No, no. Someone had pointed out Saba looked a lot like the Mexican forward Carlos Vela. With the likely MLS MVP declining to join the national team for the tournament, the headline “Vela playing in Gold Cup semi-final after all” was going to get some clicks and some laughs.
Saba, whom I wanted to profile because of the fact that he’d been one of the best players in the tournament and was playing his domestic football in Haiti, gamely played along. Far more compelling than the shape of his nose, I found, were his trials at clubs like Blackburn Rovers when he was a United States Under-18 international. Three knee surgeries derailed his career but here he was bossing midfields at the Gold Cup.
They gave Mexico everything they had, taking El Tri to extra time before Jiménez converted a penalty. It was the type of match Mexico had been playing all tournament. You never felt like they were in danger of losing it, but they didn’t seem all that interested in going out and winning the damn thing.
Because of a travel quirk, the next morning I flew to Houston before driving back to Dallas. At home, I saw a much-improved United States against a Jamaica team that had handed it a worrying defeat in a pre-tournament friendly. Gregg Berhalter had his team humming along and a weather delay did little to dampen the Americans’ verve, the favourites running out 3-1 winners.
It was the final everyone had expected. United States v Mexico. Predictable old Concacaf. Except, of course, that it was the first time since 2011 the teams had met in the last game. And nobody had expected Mexico’s path to include Haiti in the semi, or the US’s to feature a slugfest with Curaçao.
I get to Chicago and am pleasantly surprised to find media access actually isn’t too bad for the Mexico team. Typically, the team looks to put as much distance as possible between its players and the often-antagonistic reporters who cover it. But some of the major stars actually speak, and I’m able to ask several questions to central midfielder Edson Álvarez. Álvarez was one of many players Mexico feared would be injured for the length of the tournament, but he’s bounced back and played all but the first game, in the process justifying why he’s on the radar of so many European clubs. The United States are typically quite open, and Christian Pulisic answers questions about the importance of a hot start like the one against Jamaica and Zack Steffen speaks of the significance of the rivalry.
The morning of the match, I head to Lincoln Park to watch the United States women beat the Netherlands. The watch party put on by the US federation, which is based in Chicago, draws thousands, no small number of whom are wearing Mexico shirts. I’m struck by how emblematic it is of the United States (and perhaps also Mexico) that there are fans who support the Mexico men and the US women.
Then it’s another noisy interview and an ill-fated attempt to make it to a bar near the stadium to watch the Copa América final. When the red line shuts down, I stream the match on my phone and pop into a restaurant for some lunch and air conditioning. Eventually, I pack into a bus that sits in traffic for ages but eventually releases me in the festive atmosphere around historic Soldier Field. I’m a bit grouchy about it for some reason, too used to the scenes at this point. Trying to shake off my cynicism, I take a few photos and videos of the fans dancing in the parking lot while they enjoy beers and smoked meats and being alive.
We’ve got the nightcap on this day full of finals, and it ends up being the extremely pleasant kind, not the kind that sends you to bed with your head spinning. The US are the better team over the first 35 or 40 minutes. They hit Mexico on the transitions as planned and find some success with long balls far less glamorous than Berhalter would have them play on a normal day. If Jozy Altidore were more effective, the US would have gone into the break with the lead. Instead, it’s still scoreless when Tata Martino moves Uriel Antuna to the left wing and brings Rodolfo Pizarro to the right. Álvarez starts dropping between the two centre-backs more often, forming almost a line of three for long stretches as Jonathan dos Santos and Andrés Guardado start working with the full-backs to help Mexico dominate possession.
Something finally gives when dos Santos finds Pizarro in the 73rd minute and bursts forward. Weston McKennie, wearing the captain’s armband after an excellent tournament, switches off and doesn’t track the run. Pizarro goes to work and finds Jiménez in the box, who thinks for a beat and then uses his heel to nudge the ball into dos Santos’s path.
It’s another fine goal, and it’s the one that will give Mexico the crown. Undoubtedly the Concacaf power in the region after the US missed the 2018 World Cup and Costa Rica fell far short in Russia of the high water mark it set in Brazil, the best team in the region is once again its champion.
We’ll do it again in two years. Maybe that’s too soon, but honestly I’m looking forward to it. Sure, Mexico defeated the United States, but the joy I felt watching that Haiti goal or seeing the Curaçao smiles makes it worth it.
The story of this Gold Cup isn’t that the big boys made the final and the better team won. That did happen. That’s the headline. But the detail that really matters is the other teams fighting back. This was not an easy Gold Cup for the finalists. It was a tournament that hinted that there may at last be sustained development from other teams in the region than the usual suspects. This Gold Cup was a surprise burst of joy. This Gold Cup had something for everyone. This Gold Cup did not suck.