Jason Kreis could have as legitimate a gripe with the tournament as anyone.
With his team clicking and claiming a spot at the top of the league table, the Real Salt Lake coach has suddenly lost a key quartet to the CONCACAF Gold Cup. His team’s all-time leading scorer has suited up for Costa Rica. His MLS Cup-winning goalkeeper, his starting right back and his team’s captain will miss all of July while wearing red, white and blue for a tournament many have panned as inconsequential.
But that’s not how Kreis sees it.
“If you look at that tournament as it really should — if I look at it and say that’s our equivalent of the European championship or Copa America — then I think it ought to be taken seriously,” the RSL boss said. “I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be. Why? Because our region is a little bit weaker in strength? It doesn’t matter. I think we should approach it that we want to be the best team in our region and we’re going to do everything possible to accomplish that. I support it.”
The biennial tournament, which comes to Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday with a doubleheader featuring Team USA vs. Cuba (1:30 p.m.) and Panama vs. Belize (4 p.m.), is something of a critical lightning rod.
When the United States suited up Tuesday night in Portland, Ore., the competition was lackluster; Belize, a nation reportedly struggling to pay the cost of traveling for the tournament, was severely overmatched.
Critics can certainly look at the U.S. roster and call it a “B team.” Striker Jozy Altidore is off preparing for his new job in the Premiere League. Clint Dempsey may very well be fishing while goalkeeper Tim Howard relaxes by a pool, as the U.S. stars suggested they would do when they took off for their summer vacations last month.
Defender DaMarcus Beasely is the only real holdover from a starting lineup that gave the U.S. nine critical points earlier this summer in World Cup qualifying.
But as the United States takes the next step in Gold Cup play at Rio Tinto, there will still be plenty to play for in this tournament.
After losing the last two Gold Cup finals to Mexico, the U.S. is looking to recapture some pride and momentum from a Mexican side that has struggled to score goals all summer. And a win in the finals would give the U.S. a playoff game against the 2015 Gold Cup champion for a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
For Real Salt Lake fans, the tournament will provide the best opportunity to see Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran take the field for their country. Rimando and Beckerman started in last week’s warmup against Guatemala and Tuesday night’s Cup opener against Belize.
For those players, it is a chance to work their way back onto, or better secure their spots, on Jurgen Klinsmann’s first team. Beckerman offered up a quality cross that led to one of three Chris Wondolowski goals Tuesday, and Rimando made some terrific stops on the rare occasion he was tested in the 6-1 win.
But perhaps no player on the United States roster has more to prove than Landon Donovan. The U.S.’s all-time leading scorer fell from Klinsmann’s good graces when he took a self-imposed sabbatical at the end of the 2012 MLS season. Donovan has shown, with a goal and an assist Tuesday, that he is eager to reclaim his spot on the first team.
The World Cup this tournament is not, but it’s a chance for some players to get there.
Reporter Alex Riggins contributed to this story.
CONCACAF Gold Cup
O Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy)
• USA vs. Cuba, 1:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 13
• Panama vs. Belize, 4 p.m.
TV • Fox Soccer