Gold Cup fever begins to set in

The 2013 Gold Cup opens at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Sunday, and then heads to Miami’s Sun Life Stadium on Friday with Honduras-El Salvador and Haiti-Trinidad and Tobago matchups. Among the many story lines in the 12-nation regional championship are these two burning questions:

Will three-time World Cup veteran Landon Donovan, the all-time leading scorer for the U.S. national team, impress coach Jurgen Klinsmann enough to regain a spot on the World Cup qualifying roster? Donovan, 31, was recalled to the team for this tournament after an 11-month absence and is eager to prove he’s still got world-class game.

The other question making headlines: Will Mexican coach Jose Manuel “Chepos” De La Torre get fans and media off his back and keep his job? After winning the 2011 Gold Cup and the 2012 Olympic gold medal, Mexican soccer fans were giddy and extremely hopeful for the 2014 World Cup. But De La Torre’s team has won just one of six World Cup qualifiers this year, and early losses to Brazil and Italy at the Confederations Cup dampened the mood even more.

As if that weren’t reason enough for concern, the Mexican “B” team that opens the Gold Cup on Sunday against Panama, lost two warm-up games to Mexican club teams Cruz Azul Hidalgo (1-0) and Queretaro, which was ahead 3-0 after 87 minutes Wednesday before the Mexican national team scored two quick goals to save face.

Fans chanted “Fuera Chapo!” (Out with Chapo!) before and after the match. De La Torre, the former coach at Chivas and Toluca, was hired to much fanfare. But the honeymoon is over, and his fate could be decided by this Gold Cup team of mostly reserves — the majority of whom have 10 or fewer appearances with the national team.

Mexico is in Group A with Panama, Canada and Martinique. The top two teams advance, as do the two best third-place teams of the three groups. So, chances are good Mexico will survive the early rounds. But anything less than reaching the final, and Chapo could be gone.

Mexico’s only two wins in 2013 were against Jamaica and Japan, and World Cup qualifying ties at home with Jamaica, Costa Rica and the United States prove Azteca Stadium might not be as daunting a venue as it once was. The Mexican team sits behind the United States and Costa Rica in the World Cup qualifying standings, and the mood will lift only with an outstanding performance at the Gold Cup.

Donovan also hopes to use the Gold Cup to make a statement. He took a four-month sabbatical from the game last winter, and despite his many accolades and legion of fans, Klinsmann has been in no hurry to bring him back on board.

“I come from a different background, and in soccer it’s normal to have to work your way back into the mix,” said Klinsmann, the former German national team player and coach. “When someone takes time off or has an injury, we evaluate that case from zero. We respect the past accomplishments, but that doesn’t help you tomorrow. It doesn’t help you today.”

As for Donovan’s impressive résumé, Klinsmann says that has little to no bearing on his selection.

“We know what he’s done for the game over the last 10 to 15 years, but soccer is always about today,” he said. “It’s about performance and consistency, and Landon knows that. We’re happy to have him back. He’ll have opportunities.”

Donovan says he’s “excited” to be back.

“It’s been a long year or so since I’ve been in,” he said. “I’m in a little bit of a different place than I was before. Jurgen has created an environment where you are really competing consistently to be a part of this team. And now, I am very much on the outside looking in. I’ve got to make my way back in, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Donovan was reunited with fellow veterans Oguchi Onyewu, Kyle Beckerman and DaMarcus Beasley, who will wear the captain’s armband in Clint Dempsey’s absence. Klinsmann was effusive in his praise for the resurgent Beasley.

“DaMarcus is a pure giver,” he said. “When we called him in back in March, he told me he would play whatever role we asked, and he has proven his point over the last several months with some tremendous performances. He’s a great guy to have around the locker room. He always has a smile and brings a lot of positive energy. His leadership and experience will be very valuable in this tournament.”

Carlos Pavon, the former Honduran star who played alongside Donovan with the Los Angeles Galaxy, called Donovan “the motor” of the U.S. team and is curious to see if he’ll return to the team full-time.

“The U.S. team plays different with Landon is in there,” said Pavon, who was in Miami last week promoting the Gold Cup. “He was at the center of everything, and the motivator. Like many fans, I have wondered why he’s not out there anymore.”

Pavon said the United States and Mexico are favorites, but he has high hopes for Honduras. Los Catrachos qualified for the 2010 World Cup and are one point behind Mexico in the 2014 qualifiers. They are favored to win Gold Cup Group B ahead of El Salvador, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago.

“We have a young team, but they’re getting better every game,” he said. “This new generation of Honduran players is picking up where we left off and little by little becoming powerful in the region.”

Honduras plays El Salvador at 9:30 p.m. Friday in the second half of the Sun Life Stadium doubleheader. Haiti plays Trinidad and Tobago at 7. Tickets are available through TicketMaster and the Sun Life Stadium box office.