Soccer

Group B favorite Honduras leads quartet of Gold Cup clubs playing in South Florida

 

mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

The national soccer teams of Honduras, Haiti, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago arrived in Miami on Tuesday night to begin preparing for Friday night’s Gold Cup doubleheader at Sun Life Stadium.

They trained Wednesday at Barry University and FIU, and are scheduled to practice again Thursday at Sun Life, where Haiti will play Trinidad and Tobago at 7 p.m., followed by Honduras against El Salvador at 9:30 p.m.

Honduras, which qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, is favored to win Group B in the 12-team regional championship. “ Los Catrachos,” as the Hondurans are known, beat a much-improved Haiti team 2-0 in their opener on Monday night in Harrison, N.J. They are a dark horse to make a deep run in the tournament, along with the United States, Costa Rica and Mexico, although the Mexican team has been struggling of late. Panama is also playing well and could be in the mix.

The Gold Cup is a biennial tournament of the CONCACAF region, which includes North and Central America and the Caribbean. The winner of the 2013 event plays the winner of the 2015 tournament for a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, a tuneup for the 2018 World Cup.

The tournament began Sunday, and so far two of the biggest stories are the success of the U.S. team and the troubles of Mexico.

The U.S. made a major statement late Tuesday night with a 6-1 victory over Belize in Portland, Ore. Chris Wondolowski came out of his scoring slump and scored a first-half hat trick. Three-time World Cup veteran Landon Donovan, back on the team for the first time in 11 months, scored off a penalty kick and had two assists. Stuart Holden, also making a comeback after numerous injuries, scored, as did Michael Orozco.

The U.S. win came on the heels of a 6-0 exhibition victory over Guatemala last Friday. Although both victories were over lesser opponents, coach Jurgen Klinsmann seemed pleased. The results are particularly encouraging because the U.S. roster for the Gold Cup is not the “A” roster. Most of the Europe-based players such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley are not playing.

Klinsmann was happy to see Wondolowski find his groove.

“A goal scorer always comes on in the moments where he realizes the extra work will pay off, and it pays off for Wondo that he is so dedicated and has such a great attitude,” Klinsmann said. “It makes us coaches happy, obviously, and he builds his own case.”

Wondolowski, who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes, said: “I’m confident, relaxed and enjoying it. I was pressing a little too much in the beginning, and I don’t think I play my best when I’m like that. We have to continue doing the little things — connect our passes, be sharp and continue our movement. When we move without the ball, that really makes us dangerous and hard to mark.”

Another player building a case is Donovan, who Tuesday became the first U.S. player to score 50 goals and have 50 assists. Klinsmann had left the former team captain off the roster after Donovan took a five-month hiatus from the game.

Donovan seemed to truly enjoy being back on the field with his U.S. teammates, and if he continues to play well through the Gold Cup, chances are he will earn a spot for the upcoming World Cup qualifying matches. The U.S. sits in first place in its World Cup qualifying group and is in easy reach of a berth in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“I’m very proud of [the 50 goals and 50 assists],” Donovan said. “If you pass the ball and guys don’t score, you don’t get the assist. I’m very aware that there are two parts to that. I get a lot of enjoyment out of helping guys score and seeing guys be successful and happy. When it comes in a victory, it’s even more special.”

Mexico is desperate to regain that feeling after losing 2-1 to Panama in its Gold Cup opener on Sunday night. “ Fuera Chepo!” (Out with Chepo!) is the most popular Mexican chant of late, as coach Juan Manuel (Chepo) De La Torre tries to turn his team around and keep his job.

The Mexicans won the 2011 Gold Cup and the 2012 Olympic gold medal, but things have spiraled this year. “ El Tri” has only one win through six World Cup qualifiers, and the club sits in third place. A good showing these next few weeks at the Gold Cup would lift the mood. Mexico plays Canada on Thursday in Seattle.

Tickets for the Sun Life Stadium matches Friday night begin at $18 and are available through Ticketmaster or the stadium box office.

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