The first day of quarterfinals play held very few surprises as Panama turned in an impressive showing with a 6-1 drubbing of Cuba and Mexico pulled out a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday.
Now, with just two matches remaining before the semifinals matchups are determined, the United States, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica will do battle Sunday to take one step closer to the Gold Cup finals.
The United States has been extremely impressive through three matches, rolling to a Group C first-place finish, punctuated with a tough 1-0 victory over Costa Rica last week. Costa Rica played well in that match, however, and will look ahead to a massive matchup with Group B winner Honduras in the evening match Sunday.
El Salvador is the only remaining third-place group stage finisher, having secured a berth in the quarterfinals with four points, ahead of Group A third-place finisher Martinique (three points). Things won’t get any easier in the quarterfinals against a stout United States side, however.
Let’s take a closer look at each match, including television coverage information and predictions for both Gold Cup contests.
|United States vs. El Salvador||4 p.m. ET||Fox Network||Fox Soccer 2Go|
|Honduras vs. Costa Rica||7 p.m. ET||Fox Soccer||Fox Soccer 2Go|
United States vs. El Salvador
The United States featured an attack that proved absolutely dominant in the group stage, and El Salvador will face a difficult challenge in slowing the likes of Landon Donovan and Chris Wondolowski on Sunday.
Wondolowski netted five goals in the previous stage, taking advantage of tremendous balance across the United States’ attack. He’s a pure scorer and terrific finisher who gives the USMNT the added firepower to hang with any team still in the tournament, but he’s not the biggest reason the team is where it’s at right now.
Donovan, since coming off a four-plus-month layoff, has been a huge boost of the American team. Since his return for a friendly against Guatemala prior to the Gold Cup, the 31-year-old has slotted four goals and notched three assists, proving he can’t be overlooked when Jurgen Klinsmann puts together the United States’ final World Cup roster.
But before any decisions can be made, the team has to focus on its Sunday quarterfinals matchup. As quoted by Andrew Wiebe of MLSSoccer.com, Donovan expects it to be a difficult contest predicated on breaking El Salvador’s stout defense and avoiding big mistakes in defending the counterattack:
Our expectation is that they’ll do what every other team has done. They’ll defend with everything they have, and they’ll try to catch us on perhaps a counter or a set piece or something like that, so we have to be concentrated. Actually, I think the heat probably helps us in some ways to move the ball and wear a team down like we’ve had to in the other games. That’s the objective.
I don’t care who you are, you can’t defend in 90-degree weather for 90 minutes the way some of these teams have. If we keep the tempo high and make them play at a pace that they’re not comfortable with, then I think we’ll be successful.
That strategy worked well in the group stage, and given El Salvador’s shortcoming in the final third during the tournament (three goals), the United States has a decided advantage.
With Donovan playing his part in balancing out the United States’ attack with terrific vision and the ability to score from anywhere in the final third, the pressure will be on El Salvador to avoid the heat and take advantage of what will likely be limited scoring opportunities.
Prediction: United States 3, El Salvador 1
Honduras vs. Costa Rica
While the United States is playing on its home soil and is sure to be fired up for its quarterfinals matchup, Honduras and Costa Rica are poised for a much more competitive affair.
Costa Rica has allowed just one goal in its previous five matches, dropping a 1-0 contest to the United States in the final group-stage clash. Prior to that match, Costa Rica played Mexico to a scoreless draw and recorded three clean sheets, including a 3-0 victory over Cuba and a close 1-0 win over Belize.
Honduras has shown similar defensive prowess in recent matches after recording two clean-sheet victories in its last five contests. But while Honduras has been stout of late in the defensive third, it hasn’t exactly provided the firepower to suggest Costa Rica could be in any trouble in this match.
Pick your winners for Sunday's Gold Cup matches.
Still, each of the last four meetings between the two sides have been extremely competitive matches. Honduras and Costa Rica squared off on July 7 in a 1-0 Costa Rica win in World Cup qualifying play, but each of the previous three meetings (dating back to January 13, 2011) ended in 1-1 draws.
While Costa Rica appears ready for another gritty win on Sunday, Honduras did have a chance to rest some of its first-team players in the Group B finale. That extra rest could be a major factor in this contest as Cost Rica threw everything it had against the Americans in the final match of Group A play.
Expect this matchup to be a hard-fought, gritty affair between two evenly matched sides. In the end, this contest could very well be determined by one big play late in the match.
Prediction: Costa Rica 2, Honduras 1