The 2013 Gold Cup is in the books, as Team USA won its first title at the event since 2007. The U.S. men's national team went undefeated, steamrolling most opponents, but it wasn't the only team that impressed.
The question is, which breakout squads will carry their momentum into World Cup Qualifying?
The field is crowded for the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, as three teams are within two points of each other for third place. Those clubs are Mexico, Honduras and Panama, in that order, but the Gold Cup gave us a new perspective on their outlooks.
At this point, no one is safe—not even the heavily favored El Tri.
If Mexico is to fall, a force must rise and an underdog will thus capture the spotlight. Seeing as we hear this story on a yearly basis, it'd hardly be shocking to see an under-the-radar team come through and pull out a monumental upset.
Here are the teams you shouldn't sleep on to either maintain their success or elevate their game to another level.
The top three teams qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The fourth seed faces New Zealand in a playoff.
Costa Rica has turned heads this year, out-dueling the favored opposition to pull into second place in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying standings. While many were unfamiliar with the team before the Gold Cup, the same can't be said now.
Costa Rica played class defense throughout, holding the red-hot United States team to just one goal in a 1-0 defeat.
Brek Shea scored the game-winner in the 82nd minute, which shows just how well the Costa Ricans played defensively. Their formations can be impenetrable and goaltender Patrick Pemberton was a pleasant surprise.
The question is, can they score goals at a strong enough level to reward their defense?
If Costa Rica can find a semblance of offense, it will be an upset waiting to happen come the 2014 World Cup. Ending its Gold Cup tenure with consecutive 1-0 defeats certainly doesn't bode well for its future, but the country is in control of its own destiny.
With a three-point edge over Mexico, Costa Rica has a legitimate shot to finish in second place—it's also in the running for first.
Team USA remains just two points ahead of Costa Rica, and judging by the close nature of their Gold Cup encounter, La Sele appear unfazed by their high-profile competition. That theory will be put to test on Sept. 6, as Costa Rica meets the U.S. national team in a World Cup Qualifier.
Expect a good one from a team that has built undeniable defensive momentum.
Was any team more of a pleasant surprise than Panama during the 2013 Gold Cup?
Panama was tactical, mentally tough and unwilling to flinch at the first sight of adversity. From major upsets to flashes of dominance, Panama made a powerful statement as we approach the next leg of World Cup Qualifying: This is a legitimate contender.
This is not to compare Panama, or any of the Gold Cup teams for that matter, to the world's elite. What is to be said, however, is that Panama is a team that can play against anyone and, at the very least, pose a threat for a potential upset.
Just ask Mexico.
Panama defeated El Tri twice, winning 2-1 in both the group stage and semifinals. This is especially surprising considering Mexico dominated possession, which was the same story in Panama's 1-0 finals loss to Team USA.
As we all know, the story of every Cinderella is its ability to make the most of limited opportunities.
Panama was rather underwhelming against Canada and Martinique, but it proved its separation from the bottom clubs with a 6-1 win over Cuba. Paired with strong showings against two of the world's better teams, Mexico and the U.S., Panama proved its legitimacy.
Sitting one point behind Honduras for fourth place and two back of Mexico, however, Panama must translate its Gold Cup success into World Cup Qualifying victories. If it doesn't, it won't make it to Brazil.
That process begins on Sept. 6 against Jamaica.
Entering the 2013 Gold Cup, there was good reason to believe that Team USA would emerge as the favorite. Mexico had been struggling, the Americans had a winning streak and, quite frankly, the level of competition just wasn't too impressive.
No one expected them to be so dominant.
Team USA won four separate games by multiple tallies, racking up 20 goals and allowing just three in six games. The average squad would take that as a quality result with teams such as Belize and Cuba on the slate, but there's something important to note.
The U.S. has a long history of playing down to the level of their opponents, narrowly escaping games against lesser teams. Not this time.
When you have a drought like that, you must be considered a breakout squad.
Team USA is in full control of its own destiny, leading the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying standings with 13 points. Costa Rica is two behind at 11, while third-place Mexico is a full five points back at eight.
Barring an unthinkable collapse, Team USA will be headed to Brazil with pure confidence—its Sept. 6 clash with Costa Rica will simply decide who's in control of first place.
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