This past Sunday evening, Mexico and Costa Rica confirmed what we already knew, establishing their credentials as Group A favorites. Mexico's 5-0 blowout of El Salvador and Costa Rica's earlier victory over Cuba by the same scoreline left no doubt that the June 12 showdown between the two teams at Soldier Field in Chicago could very well be the most enticing game of the group stage.
In the meantime, though, each team has one game and a series of questions to answer. For Costa Rica, the team has to face an El Salvador side that it has lost to in its last two competitive matches: a 2-1 result in the 2009 Gold Cup group stage and a 1-0 result in a World Cup qualifier in El Salvador, also in 2009. While the momentum of the two teams is starkly different, El Salvador will provide a much tougher task for Costa Rica than Cuba will provide for Mexico. With the best Cuban players having defected in previous years, the team draws entirely from the domestic league and looked severely overmatched versus Costa Rica, as opposed to an El Salvador side that at least gave Mexico a good fight in the first half.
The question then for Mexico is, does José de la Torre rest some of his top players in what should be a fairly straightforward game against Cuba? One change has already be enforced, with Ricardo Osorio having left the squad through illness, but with only a couple days' rest before the Costa Rica showdown, it could be worth it for de la Torre to mix things up a little bit to take advantage of any potential fatigue the Ticos might show.
The eleven that took the field against El Salvador on Sunday evening were arguably Mexico's best. With that group so thoroughly dominating El Salvador in the second half and Cuba being thumped in their own right by Costa Rica, it is plain that Mexico-Cuba has the potential to be a huge mismatch, while Mexico-Costa Rica could have a significant influence on the outcome of the group and the bracket as a while. Furthermore, a win against a talented Costa Rica side could prove just the momentum that is often needed to win short tournaments such as the Gold Cup.
While Mexico's players and staff have been saying all the right things to the media regarding the upcoming game against Cuba, one can't help but think de la Torre might use it as an opportunity to give other players a chance to prove themselves, be they youngsters or veterans looking to prove they still deserve a place in the starting XI. For example, Aldo de Nigris impressed off the bench, looking lively and netting a goal, and could give Gio dos Santos a break, especially after it was announced the latter would also participate in the Copa América.
New York Red Bulls Rafael Márquez has expressed a desire to play in the Cuba game, but does concede it will be up to de la Torre. It's a similar case with veteran midfielder Sinha, who has declared himself ready to play after traveling to Brazil after the death of his father. While it would be silly to give these players playing time simply because they asked, a player like Márquez represents the option of a fresh, steady hand in defense and an excellent distributor of the ball
Márquez could even find himself in a defensive midfield role after underwhelming performances from Israel Castro and Gerardo Torrado in game against El Salvador, particularly in the first half. Jesús Zavala, the 23-year-old midfielder named to the squad after an excellent Clausura 2011 with Monterrey would also slot in well in Mexico's midfield.
More than anything, these conundrums illustrate Mexico's perceived strength in depth. It will be important for the team to demonstrate both against Cuba and Costa Rica that the perception is correct. The tournament runs only three weeks for a total of up to six games and with a squad of 23, the ability to adequately replace an injured or suspended player is crucial to any team's success. Should some of the players beyond de la Torre's preferred XI impress on Thursday evening, it would be another convincing statement pointing to Mexico's status as favorites.