Stars converge at Sun Life Stadium for Gold Cup tournament

Host United States is the official home team for the 12-nation Gold Cup tournament, but Haiti surely won’t feel like a visitor at Sun Life Stadium on Friday night in a first-round match against Trinidad and Tobago.

The Haitians are back in Miami for the second time in five weeks, and if they play anything like they did in a 2-1 exhibition loss to World Cup champion Spain on June 8, their fans will be dancing and celebrating even more than they did that memorable evening.

When the Gold Cup draw was announced, Haiti was considered an underdog in a group that includes 2010 World Cup participant Honduras, 2006 World Cup team Trinidad and Tobago, and El Salvador. But that was before the Haitians showed their speed and flair against Spain’s multi-millionaire megastars, before they tied Italy 2-2 in a friendly in Brazil.

Although Honduras beat Haiti 2-0 in their tournament opener last Sunday in Harrison, N.J., the Haitians dominated much of the game, were more creative, and just couldn’t finish their scoring chances. Under Cuban coach Israel Blake Cantero, a former member of the Cuban national team, Haiti has proven to be a much-improved squad. Fifteen of the 23 players make their soccer living away from Haiti.

Among the players to watch are Major League Soccer’s Mechack Jerome and Peterson Joseph of Kansas City, and veteran defender Jean-Jacque Pierre, who plays in France. Also keep an eye on 24-year-old left back Wilde Donald Guerrier, who scored the lone goal for Haiti against Spain.

Guerrier plays for America des Cayes in Haiti’s domestic league. He typically plays games at a 2,000-seat stadium but showed no signs of intimidation as he dribbled through a Spanish back line that included Gerard Pique of Barcelona and Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea, and then got his shot past goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

The Sun Life crowd of 36,000 went crazy when Wilde scored, and probably will again with a goal Friday night against the Soca Warriors.

Trinidad and Tobago is coached by Stephen Hart, who spent the past 25 years coaching Canada and has returned to his native country. The Soca Warriors were the smallest nation to play in the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but missed the past two Gold Cups and are eager to get back into the regional conversation.

They have plenty of talent from all over the world, including Kenwyne Jones of Stoke City and former Arsenal defender Justin Hoyte, now with Middlesbrough. Two MLS players are also on the roster, Carlyle Mitchell of Vancouver and Keon Daniel of Philadelphia.

All four teams are playing their second set of games in first-round play before finishing in Houston on Monday. Top two in each group and two best third-place teams advance to quarterfinals. The 7 p.m. Haiti-Trinidad and Tobago match will be followed at 9:30 p.m. by Group B favorite Honduras against its Central American neighbor, El Salvador. Both games will be televised on Fox Sports Channel.

Los Catrachos,” as the Honduras are known, are expected to reach at least the semifinals, which they did in three of the past four Gold Cups. Although Colombian coach Luis Fernando Suarez left off most of the team’s top players — several of whom play in England — they have enough young talent to win the group.

Three players with MLS ties are Marvin Chavez of the San Jose Earthquakes, and Mario Martinez of the Seattle Sounders. Andy Najar, formerly of D.C. United, now plays with Anderlecht in the Belgian league.

One Honduran player who stood out in the win over Haiti Sunday was midfielder Jorge “Pitbull” Claros, who played for Hibernian in Scotland the past two seasons. He made headlines in June 2011 when he was shot in the head in a carjacking in San Pedro Sula. He drove himself to hospital with a bullet in his head after being ambushed while driving a new car with his wife. It turned out the injury was not as serious as he first thought, and he returned to the field a few weeks later.

El Salvador reached the Gold Cup quarterfinals in 2011, and could wind up there again as the top two teams in each group advance, along with the two best third-place teams. “ Los Cuscatletecos” are coached by Peruvian Agustin Castillo. Steve Purdy plays for Chivas USA. Others who have American ties are California-born goalkeeper Derby Carrillo, midfielders Richard Menjivar, Gerson Mayen and forward Dustin Corea.

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 tune-up for the 2018 World Cup.