USA vs Belize
July 9, 2013, 8 pm PT
JELD-WEN Field, Portland, Ore.
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The US national team take their first steps towards the Gold Cup trophy they crave with a tournament opener Tuesday against debutants Belize at JELD-WEN Field, the home of the Portland Timbers and one of several noisy venues eager to welcome the USMNT this summer. The game is the second half of a Group C doubleheader which kicks off with Costa Rica vs. Cuba at 5:30 pm PT.
There's no escaping the David-and-Goliath nature of this matchup. Belize, a small, humble nation with a population of about 335,000 – roughly equivalent to St. Louis – are making their first appearance in a major international tournament. Many of their countrymen and -women back home are aiming for the stars, urging the team to spring a colossal upset of their well-known hosts, but conventional wisdom – and history – suggests they are in for a harsh learning experience in Portland.
The USA have called on a diverse roster blessed with several experienced World Cup veterans as well as a range of hungry youngsters, all vying for a place in coach Jurgen Klinsmann's thoughts as he plots out his personnel decisions for Brazil 2014 and the remainder of qualifying this fall.
WATCH: USMNT at Civic Stadium in 1997
This is the first meeting between these teams, though the US have played in the Rose City on three previous occasions, notching two wins and a draw.
It's been almost two years since the USMNT's last Gold Cup match, the 4-2 humbling by Mexico in the 2011 edition's championship final, yet the scars remain from that fateful afternoon at the Rose Bowl. The setback handed El Tri their second straight Gold Cup title, booking their place in this year's Confederations Cup and helping seal U.S. Soccer's decision to dismiss head coach Bob Bradley and turn the program over to Klinsmann.
Landon Donovan, Clarence Goodson and Oguchi Onyewu were among the five players in Yank uniforms that day who are now part of this year's squad, and they will spearhead the quest for revenge while also laying out their case for a role in next year's World Cup campaign. Also worthy of close watch: The team's tactical evolution as Klinsmann tweaks his approach to fit the different tools and personalities of this unit compared to the one which has the US flying in the CONCACAF Hexagonal qualifying round.
It's difficult to mold unity, understanding and fluidity in a hybrid squad which has spent barely a week together, but the USA took a big step forward in that process with Friday's 6-0 thrashing of Guatemala in San Diego. After a clumsy start, strong performances from a range of contributors gave the coaching staff plenty to think about, and the Yanks' first-choice midfield may well be adjusted after Stuart Holden, Mix Diskerud and Jose Torres all showed moments of real playmaking class.
Cinderella entrants have become something of a Gold Cup tradition since the field was expanded to 12 teams in 2000, and the Jaguars undoubtedly carry that tag this year. They are ranked No. 130 in the latest FIFA rankings and have only been a member of the governing body at all since 1986. Only two of their players compete outside of the country's semi-pro domestic league, and they're both plying their trade in the Honduran Primera División.
The Jaguars qualified for this year's tournament by virtue of a fourth-place finish in the Copa Centroamericana in January, a massive achievement for their unheralded program, but one that only required one victory, a 2-1 defeat of Nicaragua in the group stage keyed by Deon McCauley's injury-time winner. It was Belize's first Centroamericana win in 23 tries.
Yet hope remains, due in large part to the prolific McCauley, who remains the leading scorer in the current CONCACAF World Cup qualifying round – despite the fact that Belize crashed out in the second round, way back in 2011 – with 11 goals. Anchored by defender Elroy Smith, the team's most experienced player on the international stage, McCauley's teammates will look to sit deep and soak up US pressure, then break out on quick counterattacks.
If the Jaguars are to achieve the stated goal of their Kansas-born coach, Ian Mork, and seek out one of the Gold Cup's eight quarterfinal slots, they'll need to limit the damage against the USA and Costa Rica, then defeat Cuba in their final group match and advance as one of the top two third-place teams.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Landon Donovan
If Friday's display is anything to go by, call him the once and future king of US soccer. The LA Galaxy talisman was focused, clever and above all, hungry as he led the demolition of Los Chapines. Floating around the attacking third menacingly, LD did as much as he possibly could in 90 minutes to prove to Klinsmann that he's returned to his old self after the burnout that prompted him to take a four-month sabbatical from the game over the winter. It seems unlikely that he'd ease up in the slightest against Belize.
BELIZE – Deon McCauley
The Jaguars striker spent time in camp with the Portland Timbers and USL PRO side LA Blues at the start of the year and a strong Gold Cup could help him take another massive step forward in terms of his professional ambitions. He'll probably have to plow a lone furrow up top for long periods against the US, but his team's hopes revolve around his ability to capitalize on what few chances may come his way.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (8): Corey Ashe (Houston Dynamo), DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting CP/Portugal), Michael Orozco Fiscal (Puebla/Mexico), Michael Parkhurst (FC Augsburg/Germany)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Helsingborg/Sweden), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg/Norway), Stuart Holden (Bolton/England), Brek Shea (Stoke City/England), Jose Torres (Tigres UANL/Mexico)
FORWARDS (5): Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Frank Lopez, Shane Orio, Woodrow West
DEFENDERS (7): Dalton Eiley, Ian Gaynair, Tyrone Pandy, Elroy Smith, Harrison Tasher, Evral Trapp, Kahlil Velasquez
MIDFIELDERS (7): Elroy Kuylen, Trevor Lennen, Andres Makin, Devon Makin, Ashley Torres, Luis Torres, David Trapp
FORWARDS (6): Lennox Castillo, Daniel Jimenez, Evan Mariano, Deon McCaulay, Harrison Roches, Michael Salazar