The 2011 Concacaf Gold Cup group stage has come to and end.  The matchups for the quarterfinals are set and we are poised for an interesting knockout round, which may be more up in the air than usual.  Two teams in particular have really risen their play and are looking to tip the scales on the traditional powers.  Panama is one, certainly a team on the upswing, Jamaica being the other.  The Reggae Boyz joined Mexico in being the only two teams to get maximum points in the group stage.

There weren’t too many surprises in regards to the final eight teams, with the exception of El Salvador.  However, the way the group standings ultimately played out did feature an unexpected element … Group C … no United States at the top.  All in all, though much turned out as predicted, there was still plenty of excitement (as well as blowouts) and intrigue hung around until the final day of group play.

Before we head on to the knockout stages … let’s take a brief look at what got us to this point.

Group A

Mexico and Costa Rica both finished first and second as was expected, while El Salvador earned a semi – surprise third place advancement.  Cuba came in with little to no expectations and in addition to being one of the tourney’s two whipping posts, again were unable to return home with the same amount of players as entering.

Mexico came into the tournament as the favorite, (or co – favorite with the U.S.) depending on who you were talking with.  They did absolutely nothing to dispel this notion and everything to enhance it.   If their were any doubts as to who the favorites are, they should be gone by now.  While the U.S. struggled compared to normal performances in the group, Mexico ran through their opposition like a hot knife through butter.  Not only does Mexico feature the most talented squad in the Gold Cup, they won convincingly even against Costa Rica.  After thrashing both El Salvador and Cuba 5 – 0, El Tri put on a clinic against Costa Rica, punishing the Ticos 4 – 1.  With a plus 13 goal differential, 9 points and only one goal conceded in three matches, Mexico is downright scary.

Costa Rica finished in 2nd place with 4 points and only goal differential separating them from the Salvadorenos.  In fact the Ticos were lucky even to be at this point needing, a last minute stoppage time equalizer against El Salvador just to finish in 2nd.  With teams like Panama, Honduras and Jamaica on the rise, perhaps the days of Costa Rica being the region’s de facto number 3 team are over.  Costa Rica is never quite the same as at home and with Honduras on the horizon, they may be returning there sooner than expected.

El Salvador played relatively well based on expectations heading in.  They nearly secured a key victory against Costa Rica that would have put them in the driver’s seat for 2nd place, after getting an early beatdown from Mexico.  El Salvador knew they needed a big game against Cuba and didn’t disappoint, exploding for 6 goals in a 6 – 1 win.  Still, this almost wasn’t enough.  Until a dramatic late goal by Panama evened things out with Canada, it seemed that late goal conceded to the Ticos would cost the Salvadorenos dearly.  With Panama’s help, El Salvador managed one of the two best 3rd place finishes (just ahead of Canada in goal differential) and a chance to play in front of a rabid, supportive fanbase at RFK Stadium in DC.  The large Salvadoran population in DC may be their best chance to get past Panama.  Though simply playing at RFK hasn’t always helped El Salvador, it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Cuba … not much to say here.  They did manage a goal, but had more defectors than said goals.  At times, I really have to wonder how this team was able to qualify, while Trinidad and Tobago did not.

Group B

Jamaica was dubbed by many as a strong dark horse heading in and they lived up to that billing and more through the first three matches.  The Reggae Boyz finished group play with a perfect record, joining Mexico in this feat.  They also were the only team to make it through without conceding a single goal.  In addition to a strong defensive effort, Jamaica brandished a relatively potent attack, finishing group play with 7 goals.  Just imagine how much more dangerous they would be with a healthy Omar Cummings on the pitch.  Jamaica will now provide a daunting task for the U.S.  Goals have already not come easy for the States and Jamaica’s backline probably will probably make them that much more difficult to come by.

Honduras while still generally considered a team on the way up, they are a young team.  The Catrachos started off by playing to a stalemate with a resurgent Guatemala and then were able to handily defeat Grenada, the tournament’s other whipping boys.  Honduras didn’t play up to their potential though, relying on a dominating win over Grenada to finish in 2nd.  The attack looked potent in this 7 – 1 win, but considering the competition, you have to wonder about their prospects to advance further.  Against stronger competition in Jamaica and Guatemala, the Catrachos were unable to find the back of the net.

Guatemala entered the Gold Cup on a semi – high as a footballing nation after their U – 20 squad was able to dispatch the United States and advance to the FIFA U – 20 World Cup.  Though not exactly the same roster, this feeling of success and confidence seemed to transpose itself onto the senior national team.  Though they played to a scoreless draw in their first group match with Honduras, the Chapinos came out with a lot of energy and had some real good goal scoring opportunities.  After losing 2 – 0 to a strong Jamaican team, Guatemala secured advancement with a 4 – 0 victory over Grenada.  The Chapinos were able to advance as one of the two best third place teams, based on a superior goal differential to Canada and El Salvador.

Grenada, like Cuba, was probably just happy to be there.  They were also happy to score a goal, which came against Honduras.  I’m glad that the island got to have their moment in the sun, but Grenada performed about where most expected them to.  Losing Shalrie Joseph before the tournament hurt, but I’m not sure his inclusion would have made much of a difference.

Group C

Panama were the surprise group winners.  The key moment for them was of course getting a win over the U.S. on American soil.  Even though this was somewhat unexpected, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility before the match either.  After all, Panama has given the United States a tough fight in the previous two Gold Cups.  This is definitely a team beginning to establish themselves as a potential regional power in the making.  It’s too soon to make any grandiose claims, but this is a team that could carve out a nice niche for themselves in CONCACAF.  Having a top notch striker such as Blas Perez doesn’t hurt either.

The United States continued one streak, always qualifying for the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup, while saying goodbye to another one.  The Americans can no longer stake a claim to an unbeaten record in the group stage.  Though they beat Canada comfortably, 2 – 0, their performance was still lackluster at times.  Despite falling to Panama on Matchday Two, the U.S. continued a trend they displayed during the World Cup, a propensity for creating an array of goal scoring opportunities, only to find the finishing a bit faulty (think Algeria match).  Like the final group game of the World Cup, the U.S. pelted the Panamanian backline with dangerous passes and crosses (especially over the last 10 minutes), only to find seemingly sure goals go by the wayside. The Americans had a similar situation unfold in the final group match with Guadeloupe.  Countless chances were wasted, with Clint Dempsey being a big culprit. The defense has also had some pretty shaky moments during the group stage.  Still this is a very talented team, that has only given up two goals so far.  The team has shown some really good ball movement.  The attack has flown right up until the final third, all that’s needed now is that finishing touch.

Canada probably suffered the biggest heartbreak of the opening round.  Though it had to be heartbreaking for Cuba and Grenada to get constantly throttled, it’s even worse when you have advancement whisked away just seconds before achieving it.  The Canadians recovered from their opening match loss to the U.S. with a tight 1 – 0 win over Guadeloupe.  After taking the early lead against Panama in the final game, they were just moments away from advancing in at least third place.  However, Panama were able to score after the ball ping ponged around the box in a frenzy.  After a frantic failed attempt at clearance, the ball trickled into the back of the net over three minutes into stoppage time.  You could practically see the life drained out of the Canadians at this moment.  Things were now out of their hands and they had to wait to see if Guadeloupe could pull off a shock upset of the U.S., which of course, didn’t happen.

Guadeloupe probably played slightly below expectations, especially considering their past relative success in the regional championship.  After going down to 9 men in the opening match with Panama and being in a 3 – 0 hole, the Gwada Boyz began to dig themselves out, netting twice.  It wasn’t quite enough however and after a closely contested loss to Canada, the French territorial island was all but eliminated.  They needed a lot of help to advance during Matchday 3.  Despite the slight letdown, Guadeloupe still displayed some very good technical skill and were fun to watch.  It’s hard not to root for them to some degree, considering this is essentially their World Cup.

Leading Goalscorer so far : Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Mexico) 5

Quarterfinal Matchups :

Costa Rica v Honduras (6/18)

Mexico v Guatemala (6/18)

Jamaica v United States(6/19)

Panama v El Salvador (6/19)

All in all, an entertaining first round.  Sure, there were some snoozers because of blowouts.  Still, there were enough surprises, close finishes and late match heroics to make for an interesting start.