Commentary / Gold Cup

Fixing the Gold Cup

Photo by Earl Gardner

The United States suffered bites and pinches, kicks and the Philadelphia heat on Wednesday night to advance to the semifinal the 2017 Gold Cup. Their success includes having beaten or drawn the 52nd, 103rd, and 105th ranked teams in the world along the way, as well as another that isn’t ranked at all because it’s not a full-fledged FIFA member. (Though FIFA rankings are notoriously fickle and a source of contempt for many soccer pundits, they’re a useful tool for this exercise.)

In short, the Americans haven’t done anything of substance yet. Head coach Bruce Arena knows this: it’s why he felt liberty to tinker with his lineup during the group stages, to vet new players and their international readiness, and to otherwise assume his team would move forward without playing to its best level. He was right.

Thus, the tournament officially “begins” for the team this tonight, as the U.S. finally face one of the two teams in the region who are currently more highly ranked than they are, 2014 World Cup darlings Costa Rica.

The reader may recall that the Ticos were the surprise of the 2014 global competition, winning a Group D that was comprised of England, Italy, and Uruguay. They advanced through this group unbeaten, only dropping points to the all-but-eliminated Three Lions in the final match, while Uruguay were salting away the Italians to the motivational pleas of “HELP!! HELP!!” from Azzurri head coach, Cesare Prandelli. Then, doing what neither Mexico nor the United States could, the Ticos advanced to the quarterfinal by dispatching Greece, only to lose to the Netherlands on penalties.

This will obviously be a good matchup for the Americans, as incomplete as their team continues to be despite some reinforcements. And yet, though Costa Rica are ranked higher than the Americans right now, though they advanced from a tougher group in this tournament than the Americans did, and though they outperformed the Yanks in the previous World Cup, the United States are more than four times more likely to win this competition than the team they play tonight.

The problem

Therein lies the problem with this competition as it stands: The Americans are expected to win roughly every match they play on home soil (and the matches are all on home soil) against all but one of their opponents, regional powerhouse Mexico, and this has been the case for more than a generation. As a result, the Gold Cup may be many things to many soccer people in this region, but the consistently low quality of competition is hurting the United States’s chances of winning a World Cup.

Considering this is the sequential goal that follows from Arena’s stated goal (a correct focus, for the record), something has to be done.


The Gold Cup competition has existed in its modern form since 1991 and there have been thirteen tournaments, not including the current one, basically every two years. Of those thirteen, seven have been won by Mexico, five by the United States, and one by Canada.

In many iterations of the tournament, guest teams have been invited to fill out the mediocre field. More often than not, those teams have been B-sides that come from South America, and Brazil, Colombia, and Peru have all taken this route as participants and finished in the top three at some point. In addition, South Korea and South Africa have both made the trip across their respective ponds in anticipation of their World Cup hosting years. The best finish for any of these guests? Runners up. The only year neither the Mexicans nor the Americans hoisted the trophy? 2000, when Colombia bounced the Americans on penalties in the quarterfinals and the Mexicans lost to eventual winners, Canada, on a Golden Goal.

Seven thousand people showed up at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on February 27, 2000 to watch the final that year.

Getting ready for the world stage

In other federations, regional tournaments only happen every four years between World Cups, and they matter to players and countries as a major trophy. Just ask Cristiano Ronaldo. Or, more specifically, ask yourself if the captain of Mexico or the United States would be that emotional lifting the Gold Cup trophy.

Whether or not there is any correlation with success in the tournaments of elite federations and subsequent success in the World Cup is difficult to quantify because of the number of variables involved (the location, the draw, player health, etc…) in the separate tournaments and the small sample size of knockout soccer. Occasional trends pop out, like Spain’s 2008 Euro – 2010 World Cup – 2012 Euro triple, but there are few obvious examples beyond that. However, it is unequivocal that a team in need of a result against Venezuela, Croatia, or Ghana (the tenth best team in each respective federation) will need to be better than a team needing a result against Canada, Vanuatu, or Syria (the tenth best team in these federations).

In the elite federations, the level of competition is higher across the board and thus excellence is required earlier in the tournament. This is good for players, fans, and teams at the top and the bottom of the talent pool. How much more excellence is required is actually quite surprising when digging into some data.

Sorting the FIFA rankings into federations, identifying the Top 10 in each federation, adding up their total rankings, and taking an average of that number will illustrate this point. These are the average rankings of the Top 10 countries in each federation:

  • Europe: 8.6
  • Africa: 38.6
  • South America: 25.8
  • Oceana: 166.6
  • Asia: 60.4
  • CONCACAF: 57.2

The United States is trying to better itself by consistently playing against teams that are much worse than they are. Geography has created a vicious cycle within which the team is stuck, and out of which there is only one pathway: eliminate the geography.


The Gold Cup is failing the best teams in its region by offering subpar competition for too long during the tournament. If CONCACAF is serious about the global growth of all of its members, it needs to play the Gold Cup every fourth year instead of every second in order to increase the tournament’s inherent value and use increased pressure to bring out elite effort, invite participants from each of the top federations to the competition (perhaps two each from the top three to deepen or expand the groups), and pay to have its teams be a part of other federation’s tournaments to deepen each nation’s player pool.

Each of these steps will further the growth of the more inconsistent or burgeoning sides, like Panama and Costa Rica, by offering them an even higher level of competition than they can find currently, both at home and abroad. Most importantly, though, each of these things will further the growth of the largest and most consistent members of the federation, Mexico and the United States, by offering them chances to compete against teams from all over the world, both at home and abroad, helping them close the gap on their shared international goal – winning the World Cup.




  1. If US competition were restricted to only concacaf competition,
    you’d be close to right and if US players were all limited to
    club play involving concacaf players,only, you’d be even closer. But they are not and I don’t think it does anyone any good to use it as an excuse. The split squad situation ( europe/ US ) is the
    greatest impediment to US growth because they do not have enough time as a single unit to generate cohesiveness.

  2. The Copa America should continue every 4 years 10 teams from South America 6 teams from concacaf.

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    The purpose of the Gold Cup is to create profit for CONCACAF. You don’t like my cynicism? Where are the tickets sold! And why there!
    Eliminate the geography. Embrace jumbo jets.
    Join the federation that wins world cups and has the club sides that are tithe best in the world.
    Seek out the best competition and play it.
    They will welcome you because of the wealth generating potential you represent in the here and now.
    Join UEFA.

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